Foster mother's choices blamed in boy's death

Defense denies her responsibility

Email|Print| Text size + By John R. Ellement
Globe Staff / November 7, 2007

Jennifer Kadilak smiled brightly yesterday when talking about Dontel Jeffers, who was 4 years old and around 3 feet tall when the social worker got to know him at a Dorchester emergency shelter for children.

"He was just incredibly endearing and very, very cute," Kadilak, who met Dontel at the Bridge Home shelter where she worked, testified in Suffolk Superior Court.

Dontel left the shelter on Feb. 24, 2005, in the care of his foster mother, Corinne N. Stephen, who was then living on Ballou Avenue in Dorchester.

Ten days later, doctors met a radically different Dontel: His left eye was bruised. His face was scratched. Both wrists and one leg had ligature marks. His intestine had been punctured, releasing poisonous waste into his body. His throat had interior bruises as if someone had tried to squeeze off his breath.

The doctors at Caritas Carney Hospital in Dorchester tried for 45 minutes to revive the boy, but they were unsuccessful.

The responsibility for Dontel's death, Suffolk Assistant District Attorney David Deakin said yesterday, lies with Stephen, who is being tried on second-degree murder charges.

"She was the sole caretaker" during those 10 days, Deakin said. "She allowed him to suffer bruises. She called no one. Not a doctor. Not a hospital. Not 911. Not anyone. Until it was far too late to save him."

In his opening statement to the jury, Deakin said that the prosecution's case would be based on circumstantial evidence and that there would be no eyewitnesses to what happened to Dontel. But, he said, jurors will know at the end of the trial that Stephen could have saved the boy's life but chose not to.

Stephen's "choices caused the death, the untimely, avoidable death of Dontel Jeffers," he said.

Defense lawyer John Palmer described Stephen in his opening statement as a career foster mother who had safely cared for other children.

She had a good reputation with Mentor Network Inc., the private child welfare agency where she worked, he said.

A graduate of Madison Park Technical Vocational High School who had taken nursing classes at Salem State College, Stephen was also a single mother and a member of the Army National Guard, he said.

Palmer said Stephen did not batter the child, nor was she responsible for his death.

"Keep an open mind throughout this entire case," Palmer urged jurors.

Sitting in court yesterday were Dontel's grandmother, Agatha Jeffers, and other family members who regularly visited the child while he was at the Bridge Home and who had repeatedly begged the Department of Social Services to let the child live with them.

After Dontel's death, former DSS commissioner Harry Spence personally apologized to the Jeffers family for the mistakes made, including failing to tell them that the boy had been transferred into Stephen's custody.

DSS got involved in Dontel's life after his biological mother stopped caring for him properly. Elary Jeffers, the child's father, had been the boy's primary caretaker, but his father was deported to his native Caribbean island of Nevis.

Taken by DSS from his mother's home, Dontel was sent to Bridge Home to be assessed for his next placement. DSS hired Mentor Network to provide a foster mother.

The prosecution is not alleging that Stephen inflicted the abuse that led to Dontel's death. With no direct evidence as to what happened to the boy, prosecutors have decided to charge that Stephen failed to prevent his death.

Suffolk Superior Court Judge Margaret Hinkle told jurors that prosecutors do not have to prove Stephen actually delivered the blows that harmed Dontel. Instead, she told them they must be convinced that Stephen knew her actions would have caused the boy's death.

The judge also told jurors they will be given the option of convicting Stephen, finding her not guilty, or convicting her of a lesser charge, involuntary manslaughter. Second-degree murder carries a sentence of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after 15 years. Involuntary manslaughter carries a maximum of 20 years.

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