Eight years in foster care death

Email|Print| Text size + By Brian R. Ballou
Globe Staff / December 6, 2007

Dontel Jeffers endured excruciating pain in the last hours of his brief life, according to doctors. Yesterday, the only person held accountable for his death, his foster mother, was sentenced to a minimum of eight years in prison.

A jury found Corinne Stephen guilty of involuntary manslaughter on Nov. 16, following a two-week trial. Massachusetts sentencing guidelines recommend a prison term of 40 to 60 months for a person convicted of involuntary manslaughter with no prior criminal record.

"The circumstances in this case do mandate a departure from those guidelines," Suffolk Superior Court Judge Margaret H. Hinkle said moments after she sentenced Stephen, 26, of Dorchester.

Stephen had been Dontel's foster mother for 10 days when she carried his lifeless body into the emergency room at Caritas Carney Hospital in Dorchester on March 6, 2005. An autopsy revealed that the 4-year-old boy died from either a forceful squeeze to his neck or a blow to his abdomen that ruptured his bowel. Prosecutors argued that Stephen either inflicted the injuries herself or allowed another person to inflict them and then chose not to provide him with medical attention that could have saved his life.

Yesterday, dressed in a gray pantsuit with her hands cuffed, she sat motionless as Assistant District Attorney David Deakin argued that she should receive 18 to 20 years, and her lawyer, John Palmer, called for house arrest.

Stephen remained stoic as Vincent James, Dontel's adult cousin, sat in the witness chair and de scribed the family's reaction when they viewed Dontel's bruised and swollen face at the city morgue.

"We don't want to see this happen to another kid," James said.

As Hinkle issued the sentence, a collective gasp arose from the front row of the courtroom, where James and several of Dontel's relatives were sitting.

"I'm glad it's all over with now; we'll have to go with what the judge decided," James said later, acting as the spokesman for the Jeffers family.

Stephen's father, Steve Stephen, declined to comment outside the courtroom.

In making her decision, Hinkle acknowledged that Corinne Stephen has a son who now is about the same age as Dontel was when he died, and at one point used the words "caring" to describe the defendant.

But she said Dontel was "an especially vulnerable victim."

Jeffer's death captured the city's attention and put a focus on how the state's Department of Social Services utilizes foster care agencies to place children.

Massachusetts Mentor, which screened Stephen, agreed last year to pay an undisclosed amount of money to settle a wrongful-death case filed by Dontel's parents, Christal Claiborne and Elary Jeffers, who were not married and were estranged at the time of his death.

Richard Nangle, spokesman for DSS, declined to comment yesterday.

"Out of respect to the court process and the families involved, we are not going to make a statement," Nangle said.

Elary Jeffers said he raised Dontel as a single parent but was deported to Nevis when his son turned 4.

His deportation set into motion a series of events that led to Dontel being placed in DSS custody after staying for a brief time with his paternal grandmother, Agatha Jeffers.

Elary Jeffers submitted a statement to the court, which Deakin read yesterday.

"My life now is empty," the statement read. "I spend every day missing Dontel and trying to keep the thoughts of how horrible his last days were out of my head. I would gladly suffer all the pain he suffered only to have him back. I do not know how another human being, especially someone who has a child of her own, could cause so much pain to such a beautiful boy."

Pain was a constant theme throughout yesterday's sentencing. Deakin used the word several times during his sentence recommendations.

Both lawyers referred to the emotional pain the case has caused the families they represent.

Stephen was indicted on charges of second-degree murder by a grand jury in August 2005, but jurors at this year's trial opted for the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter.

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