Investigator didn't notice baby was missing
Human remains found behind home where Dontrell Melvin, his parents lived
A child welfare investigator did not notice that a 5-month-old boy now presumed dead was missing when visiting the family's South Florida home in September, state records show.
The investigator only checked on the older children in the home and did not see Dontrell Melvin, according to documents released late Monday by the Department of Children and Families. A month later, Brittney Sierra told police she hadn't seen her baby in more than a year.
"She said she hasn't seen the baby since July of 2011. Dontrell? Yes," a Hallandale Beach Police officer told a DCF investigator.
Remains that are believed to be those of Dontrelle Melvin were unearthed Friday in the backyard of the parents' former home. The medical examiner is conducting DNA tests to identify the remains. Sierra, 21, and the baby's father, Calvin Melvin, 27, are not married and have an on-and-off relationship. Both have been charged with child neglect.
A child welfare investigator went to Sierra's home in September after someone complained to the state abuse hotline that the children were dirty and smelled and that Sierra's younger sister brought a pornographic magazine to school.
Sierra and her two other children lived with her mother and Sierra's four younger siblings, officials said.
The investigator also visited the children at school, interviewed them and determined there were no signs of abuse or neglect, only that the house did smell a bit. The children said they were fed and well cared for, according to DCF records.
But younger children, including 5-month-old Dontrelle, "were not seen," the report said. DCF policies require case workers to be aware of conditions for all children in a home, not just the child involved in a particular case, DCF spokeswoman Erin Gillespie noted Tuesday.
Child welfare officials said the agency had no interaction with the family while the baby was missing and never received an abuse allegation about him. DCF contracts out child investigative work to local law enforcement in some counties around the state, including Broward, where Dontrelle lived. The agency is working with the Broward Sheriff's office to make sure that workers investigating other cases are "following safety measures for all the children in the home," Gillespie said.
Gillespie suggested that it was up to police to investigate.
"The way Florida Statutes are set up, our agency can only investigate child abuse, neglect, or abandonment, So a missing child or a custody battle would not fit that criteria unless there was an allegation of abuse as well," said Gillespie.
"It was strictly a custody issue. Our officer deemed that DCF, the hotline, was better equipped and has a responsibility to provide services to this family," said Hallandale beach Police Chief Dwayne Flournoy.
The agency has been criticized over several cases in recent years in which investigators and caseworkers claimed they visited a home, but really did not, or did not make contact with all of the children living in the home.
An investigator following up on a 2011 call that a 10-year-old girl from Miami-Dade County was in danger did not make contact with her when she visited the family's home and didn't call police. Nubia Barahona's body was found days later, decomposing in the back of her adoptive father's pickup truck. Records released after her death show that the state hotline had received numerous calls from people who claimed the child smelled and had bruises.
In Dontrelle Melvin's case, records also indicate the agency had 30 prior contacts with the family.
In 2011, a caller complained that several of the children were riding a city bus alone to school each morning, although they were picked up in the afternoon by their mother.
"I asked them if they come in the bus with an adult, with, you know, mom or dad or any other family member, and they say, they said no," said the caller.
Another hotline call last week prompted the investigation that eventually led to the discovery of the remains. That caller told hotline operators that people in the home smoked drugs in front of the children and that a 2-year-old was running down the road naked and without shoes. The unidentified caller said the mother's boyfriends were always around the house and that one hit the children, according to the call.
"I am calling because they are neglecting the children and smoking drugs in front of the children. They curse them out so bad and call them all kinds of names," said the caller.
An investigator visited the home after that and asked where baby Dontrelle was. The father said the baby had been living with his parents about 20 minutes away, but the parents later said that was not true. When investigators went back to Melvin's home, he had disappeared. He went to the police station last week to be interviewed and was later arrested. Police said he has changed his story several times and at one point said he dropped the child off at a fire station.
Meanwhile, DCF has taken into custody the baby's two siblings and Sierra's four younger siblings.
"There's nothing that any agency can do to stop someone from murdering a child. If an evil person is going to murder a child, I don't know that any agency can stop them," said Gillespie.