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Crime

As evidence of agonizing injuries piles up, DCF still won’t say boy died of abuse or neglect

Rashid Bryant seemed to all but vanish in the fall of 2020.

Relatives said the toddler rarely left his bedroom — let alone his family’s Opa-locka home. When his parents took the family to a pool party, Rashid sat in his father’s Chevy in a car seat.

When Rashid emerged from his isolation, it was on a slab at the Miami morgue. The Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office reported that in the months before his death the 1-year-old had suffered two cracks to his skull — one healing, the other fresh. He also had a healing rib fracture and a recently broken leg.

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Rashid had lived 694 days.

The cause of Rashid’s death: complications of acute and chronic blunt force injuries, the medical examiner reported. The contributory cause: “parental neglect.”

Rashid’s death has been ruled a homicide, and his parents, Christopher Bryant and Jabora Deris, have been charged with manslaughter and aggravated child abuse. They are awaiting trial.

Rashid and his nine siblings had been in and out of foster care, and the subject of at least 16 reports to Florida’s child abuse hotline. At the time of Rashid’s death his family was facing eviction. But if anything is to be learned from the boy’s tragic death, it will be despite the strenuous efforts of state child welfare authorities, who have for months refused to release agency records.

The Department of Children & Families says it has yet to resolve whether Rashid died as the result of abuse or neglect — a decision that will determine, the agency says, whether the documents will be made public.

Deris told detectives she “never physically harmed” her son. Bryant also told detectives he had “no involvement in the infliction of injuries to the victim” — and hadn’t seen anyone else harm the toddler, either. He suggested that one of the boy’s siblings “could have caused” the injuries.

Outside the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building, where the couple face trial, another important court battle looms, one that may help determine whether DCF can continue to shroud the deaths of children like Rashid in secrecy.

Under Florida law, DCF must release the agency’s records when children die as the result of caregiver abuse or neglect. The Miami Herald sued department administrators in February when they refused to release them. About a dozen media companies and advocacy groups joined the suit, including The Associated Press, The New York Times, the Tampa Bay Times, WPLG-Local 10 and the First Amendment Foundation.

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DCF says it has yet to determine whether Rashid’s death resulted from maltreatment.

Under the agency’s rules, DCF must complete abuse investigations within 60 days, although there are exceptions. Rashid died on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020. He was pronounced dead at Jackson North Medical Center.

The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office released several new documents in the case this week as part of the legal process by which prosecutors and defense attorneys exchange evidence. Included in the cache, called discovery, was the never-before released autopsy report on the boy, as well as detailed reports from Miami-Dade Police Department detectives.

The records DCF is withholding detail Bryant and Deris’ long and complex history with child welfare authorities. Deris, 32, and Bryant, 37, first came to DCF’s attention in 2013. One report said Bryant had punched Deris in the stomach while she was pregnant with the couple’s daughter, an allegation that was closed as not-substantiated.

In the ensuing years, the agency received at least 16 abuse or neglect reports, ranging from parental drug abuse to physical injury and domestic violence to the parents’ alleged failure to properly supervise their children.

Rashid was born on Dec. 13, 2018, weeks after DCF had received a total of seven new reports, including drug abuse, inadequate supervision and “environmental hazards.” DCF had sheltered eight of his siblings that Nov. 22, and Rashid had been taken into custody, as well. But on Feb. 28, 2020, Rashid and three of his siblings were returned to Deris’ care — “against [DCF’s] recommendation,” according to confidential records given to the Herald.

The handful of records obtained by the Herald don’t make clear which maltreatment reports naming Deris and Bryant were substantiated. But the children had been removed by child welfare authorities — which is extremely unlikely to occur without a verified maltreatment report — and then returned.

It was only months after Rashid had been returned to Bryant and Deris that the family began to show signs of unraveling again.

Bryant’s landlord told police that he had stopped paying rent in January 2020, and that he “made verbal threats when she tried to collect the rent.” The following September, the landlord filed a report with Opa-locka police, and then sought to evict the family.

Five months before Rashid died, on June 7, 2020, his large family attended a pool party at his aunt’s home. While his mom and siblings celebrated a relative’s birthday, Rashid and Bryant never left his father’s silver Chevrolet Malibu, his aunt, Kizzy Deris, told police.

Rashid “was sitting in a child car seat,” Kizzy Deris told police. “When she went to pick up the victim from the car seat, he immediately started crying. She became concerned and asked Jabora Deris what happened.”

Whatever Jabora Deris told her that day was deleted from the report.

“She never saw the victim again after the party,” the report said.

Rashid’s grandfather, Benoit Deris, said he, too, had been unable to see the little boy in the weeks leading up to Rashid’s death. Benoit Deris worked at a nursing home in Miami, and would swing over to his daughter’s home after work to see his grandkids, he told police. “He had not seen the victim in approximately two months,” a police report said.

One of Rashid’s brothers, a then-16-year-old, told police he noticed something wrong with Rashid’s leg two months prior to the boy’s death. The teen had placed Rashid in bed, and noticed the little boy cringed and cried when he touched his leg. “When he tried to rub the victim’s thigh, the victim was in pain and would push his hand away.”

When the teen reported the incident to his mother, Jabora Deris massaged Rashid’s thigh and “made him walk around to loosen it.” The teen couldn’t remember if his mom sought treatment for the leg, a police report said.

The 16-year-old described another incident — he called it “the stroke” — in which Rashid vomited all over his bed after eating ravioli. Moments later, “he noticed that the victim was lying with his legs up in the air, stiff and shaking,” police wrote. Jabora Deris put a spoon in Rashid’s mouth “because his tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth. Rashid then cried for 20 minutes.

The teen couldn’t remember if his mother sought medical attention for that incident, either.

“After ‘the stroke,’ ” a police report said, “the victim could not move his right arm.”

“His whole right arm was dead,” the boy told police. “He couldn’t move it.”

Jabora Deris told police that, the day before his death, Rashid ate ravioli, Rice Krispies and blue Kool-Aid for dinner. She said he was “running around and playing with his siblings” before the children went to bed at around 10 p.m.

The statement is questionable, however, as one of Rashid’s siblings later told police that “Rashid had not walked in her presence” since he injured his leg months earlier.

“The victim was always confined to his bedroom where he would lie on the bed,” a police report quoted the girl as saying. Four days before Rashid died, the girl saw him vomit after eating and he “appeared smaller in size.” She told police that “the right side of the victim’s body appeared to be limp.”

“The victim’s eyes were moving in different directions at the same time, resembling a cross-eyed condition,” the report quoted her as saying.

The night before Rashid’s death, Ashante Deris, the boy’s aunt, said Rashid was “up playing and hugging his relatives like usual.” He went to bed, and was found unresponsive by his mother the next morning.

Jabora Deris told a medical examiner investigator that she awoke that morning at around 10:30, and found Rashid “unresponsive and not breathing.” His lips were blue, but his skin color appeared normal. The boy’s mother called her sister, Ashante.

Ashante Deris told police that, “when his mother called, she was very panicked.”

“Jabora Deris was crying and stated that her baby was not breathing,” Ashante Deris told police. Ashante Deris told her sister to summon an ambulance, and she would rush over to the house. When Ashante Deris arrived, her sister was holding her son, and there were no paramedics.

Ashante Deris arrived at the family’s Opa-locka home at around 11:50 a.m. Rashid’s complexion seemed normal, she told investigators, but he had a “white liquid” oozing from his nose and mouth, and his jaw was clenched. He was not breathing, and had not been when his mother found him an hour earlier.

Another 30 minutes passed, she told police, before her sister called 911.

The sisters began CPR, as an emergency dispatcher had instructed. Jabora Deris told investigators she placed her son on the floor and propped his head up with a towel. As she began resuscitation efforts, “red-tinged mucous” seeped from the boy’s nose.

Rashid was taken to Jackson North, where doctors were not able to revive him.

After Rashid had been taken from the home, Jabora Deris checked into a hotel, her sister told a Medical Examiner’s Office investigator.

Later that day, Kizzy Deris said, her father, Benoit Deris, called her to report that “the baby” had stopped breathing, police wrote. She called her sister, Ashante Deris, and asked which of the couple’s children had died.

“Ms. Ashante Deris replied: ‘Rashid, the one with the leg messed up.’ ”

Days after the toddler’s death, Deris and Bryant were charged with child neglect leading to great bodily harm. But in May, the charges were upgraded to manslaughter and aggravated child abuse.

This story was originally published July 08, 2021 9:05 AM.

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