Answers elusive on how Florida 3-month-old died amid ‘trauma’

Emersyn Hogrefe was hospitalized in June with severe bleeding inside and outside her skull, bruising on her face and chest, and the kind of leg fracture that is often associated with abuse. Child welfare authorities told a judge they wanted to shelter the 2-month-old for her protection.

An Orlando judge instead sent her home to her parents as soon as she was discharged from the hospital.

Emersyn returned to the hospital the next month, this time with what state authorities called “abusive head trauma.”

She died 16 days later.

Emersyn’s death is under investigation by DCF, which must, under Florida law, issue a public report on the circumstances of any child death that occurs within a year of a prior abuse or neglect incident.

The police department in Apopka, the Central Florida town where the Hogrefe family was living, did not respond to calls and an email from a reporter.

DCF administrators did not respond to requests from a reporter to discuss Emersyn’s death.

Jennifer Elkins, a Winter Park lawyer, returned a call made to father Paul Hogrefe, but declined to comment on Emersyn’s death. Mother Stephanie Hogrefe could not be reached.

Emersyn was hospitalized for the first time on June 1. She was diagnosed with intracranial bleeding and “multiple” subdural hemorrhages — bleeding on both sides of her skull. Doctors also reported bruising on her chest and above her right eye, according to records obtained by the Miami Herald.

An investigation by a specially trained medical team later determined she had suffered a type of leg fracture that state authorities said was indicative of physical abuse, records show.

DCF implemented what’s called a “safety plan,” requiring only supervised contact between Emersyn and her parents. The little girl’s aunt was living in the home, and was to ensure that neither parent was left alone with Emersyn.

Emersyn was released from the hospital on June 14. At a hearing two days later, DCF asked an Orlando judge to order that both Emersyn and her 3-year-old brother be removed from the custody of Paul and Stephanie Hogrefe, 36 and 33, respectively.

But the judge denied DCF’s request, and ordered that the children be returned “immediately.”

On June 22, a private Orlando case management group, Embrace Families, began making visits to the Hogrefe home to monitor the youngsters’ safety. The family’s caseworker was able to make only three visits. Before the fourth, Emersyn was hospitalized for the second time with severe injuries.

The safety plan was not enough.

The report from a medical team that examined Emersyn concluded that she had suffered “inflicted” and “abusive” head trauma, according to records obtained by the Herald confidentially.

Emersyn died on July 27.

Extracting promises from parents believed to have abused or neglected their children is considered by some to be a dangerous practice, especially when the safety plans aren’t backed up by more concrete protective measures. In 2014, the Herald published a series of stories about the deaths of 477 children known to DCF.

The investigation, called Innocents Lost, found that, over a six-year span, at least 83 children whose parents signed one or more such written pledges died from the abuse or neglect of a caregiver.

Jeri Cohen, who presided over child welfare cases for 20 of her 27 years as a Miami-Dade Circuit judge, said that, despite the high stakes of child welfare cases, the judges who preside in dependency court often are “the newest judges on the bench, and have inadequate or no training” in the effects of drug abuse, mental illness, and domestic violence.

“In Florida,” she said, judges presiding over death penalty cases are required to get specialized training, because ‘death is different’.” Cohen added: “dependency is different,” too.

“Judges are trained in the law, not the social sciences,” Cohen said. And, “even with training, a judge can make a fatal decision.” But “without proper training, the chances of an avoidable fatal decision increase.”

Some years back, Cohen said, she taught child welfare cases at New Judges College to incoming dependency judges in Florida, focusing largely on mental health, substance abuse, domestic violence and early childhood development. She said she was not invited back to teach the next year, she was told, because she ‘scared the judges’.”

Her response: “They should be scared. That’s an appropriate emotion. It’s a scary division.”

After Emersyn’s second hospitalization, the confidential records say, “it was learned that the aunt left both parents alone with the infant and neither one could or would explain” how the little girl was hurt. DCF asked, again, for the two children to be sheltered. Again, a judge said no.

On July 22, DCF asked a third time for permission to remove the two children — after the team of medical professionals reported that the infant’s injuries resulted from “inflicted” head trauma. This request was granted. Emersyn died five days later.

Confidential records show DCF will “likely” ask a judge to remove the 3-year-old from the Hogrefes permanently.

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Carol Marbin Miller is the Herald’s deputy investigations editor. Carol grew up in North Miami Beach, and holds degrees from Florida State University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has written about children, elders and people with disabilities for 25 years. Stories written by Carol have influenced public policy and spurred legislative action, including the passage of laws that reformed the state’s involuntary commitment, child welfare and juvenile justice systems.