Frantzy Belval, whose two children were tragically killed in Little Haiti last April, said he tried to take them from the mom, Odette Joassaint, when DCF moved too slow. But he was too late.
NORTH MIAMI — After a long day of work building boats, Frantzy Belval arrived home around 10 p.m. and had just laid down when he heard knocking at his apartment door. When he opened the door, he saw police cars and a group of officers. They asked for his name and if they could speak inside.
Before they uttered another word, Belval, 45, had a feeling the visit had something to do with his children’s mother, Odette Joassaint, since she had sent police to his home before. He asked if he could put a shirt on. One officer asked him to sit down.
The officers explained that they had gone to the home his children shared with their mother on Northeast 75th Street in Little Haiti earlier that day, April 12. There, they found the bodies of 3-year-old son Jeffery and 5-year-old Laura. The two had been placed in a bed with their arms, legs and neck bound — apparently dead by strangulation at their mother’s hand.
“I fell on the floor crying, and the officer asked if I have anybody who could stay here the night,” Belval said, recalling the night in disbelief.
Joassaint, 41, has since been charged with second-degree murder, but prosecutors said they intend to seek indictment for first-degree murder. She is being held at Miami-Dade County Jail. it’s not immediately clear who represents Joassaint, based on readily-available records.
“They’d make the house dirty. I liked that.”
Three months after that night, Belval is still reeling from the killing. Weekends are particularly hard for him — that’s when his kids kept him company during their custody visits.
Laura was always singing and dancing, Belval said. Jeffery was more quiet.
“They’d come here and sleep with me, pass the time with me, go to the park,” Belval recalls, sitting inside his apartment during a recent Saturday.
“I miss my kids,” he said. “They’d jump on me, play with me, they’d make the house dirty… I had to clean up popcorn everywhere. I liked that.”
Now, he tries to do things during the weekend that remind him of the kids, like cooking Laura’s favorite meal, spaghetti. But sometimes, Belval stays up all night crying.
Seeing toys like Jeffery’s red bike or the tablets he planned to give to them, the reactions he’ll never see — those moments sting.
“I’m not sleeping, sometimes I take two shots of alcohol to sleep,” Belval said. “People tell me don’t do that, drinking to sleep is not a solution for me.”
“DCF shouldn’t have let me lose my kids”
Florida’s child welfare agency, the Department of Children and Families (DCF), has hundreds of pages of records illustrating a winding story involving a struggling mother who tried unsuccessfully to care for her family, immigrants trying to make ends meet, blended families, questions about culturally appropriate mores, mental illness and domestic abuse.
The pair had met through Joassaint’s sister and his best friend, and were together for more than six years. During some of that time, they lived together.
Some records, going back to 2017, describe an abusive relationship where both Joassaint and Belval were arrested on assault charges at different points. The charges were ultimately dropped.
Joassaint spent time at a women’s shelter, Lotus House, with her three children, including an older child from a prior relationship.
The first domestic disturbance that involved DCF occurred in 2017. The fight was supposedly about money. When police came to the house, Belval had a large bite mark on him and Joassaint was left with a bump on her forehead.
Belval said he cooperated with DCF from the very first complaint, and always wanted custody of his children. He told DCF he was fearful of something happening to them in Joassaint’s care because of how he saw her treat the oldest child. Also, Belval said, Laura told him her mom didn’t treat them right.
“I have a good relationship with the investigator at DCF,” Belval said. “But they didn’t do a good job, they shouldn’t have let me lose my kids like that.”
DCF, based on the records, offered services, such as therapy and parenting classes, that were ultimately refused. The Department sent the family’s intake to The Village, a mental health office where Creole is spoken. Facing rejection each time, DCF stopped offering.
Whenever Belval asked to have custody of his children, he said, welfare workers told him they first had to give Joassaint a mental health evaluation. However, no mental health evaluation was ever given.
In February of 2020, DCF received allegations against Joassaint. Documents do not reveal who made these allegations.
“The mother has not been taking her depression medication. There is concern for her ongoing ability to care for her children. She has been having delusional thoughts. She has been acting bizarre. She is confused, has lack of goal orientation, and vague speech…earlier she called the police for no reason,” the allegation narrative states in documents provided by DCF.
When the welfare investigator, a Creole speaker, talked with Joassaint, she said she resented living in a shelter, especially at a place with few Haitians. She said she didn’t take medication, as it would interfere with how she raised her children. Joassaint said she didn’t have any mental health issues and just needed a job, documents show.
But when Joassaint’s oldest daughter displayed medical issues impacting her mental health, the mother refused to allow the hospital to medicate the child. She blamed the government for “messing up her child’s brain with medications.”
DCF called her response “medical neglect” and deemed the oldest daughter “unsafe.” Authorities then placed the older child into DCF custody in February 2022.
“How do you take the older one, the big one, out and not my little ones?” Belval said.
Belval was eager to take custody. He picked up documents from the courthouse to start the process on his own on March 15, 2022.
“I picked it up because I said, DCF is too slow,” he said. “She didn’t give me a chance to file it, she killed the kids.”
‘I don’t want to live with mom’
In March, DCF documents say, Belval punched Joassaint in the face four times. After that altercation, he stopped talking with her for weeks. He reported to DCF that Jossaint was drinking, providing alcohol to the teenage daughter and a danger to the kids.
Jossaint denied DCF’s requests for home visits and services. When child investigators visited, no one answered the door. Then they tried to make contact at the daycare but the children were absent.
“Laura always told me I don’t want to live with my mom,” Belval said.
When Belval picked up Laura and Jeffrey for his April 2 weekend, investigators saw the children at his home, right after the family got home from shopping.
“They are very bonded with the father,” the welfare investigator wrote.
Belval said it was at this time he told investigators he could hire a babysitter for days when he worked. He insisted he needed custody of the children.
“When I’d take them home, they don’t feel good, they cry, they’re scared they don’t want to live with her,” Belval said.
Less than two weeks later, the kids were found dead.
On April 13, after the kids were pronounced dead, a child welfare investigator left a falsified note reporting that Jossaint said everything was fine at home, according to The Miami Herald.
The entries after the children’s death, “raises questions about an agency whose investigators have been known to record visits that never occurred. Such fakery has led to deadly outcomes,” The Herald wrote.
Lawsuit against DCF coming up
Belval said he is trying to make sense of it all and move forward. But it’s tough.
For starters, he’s made an intake appointment to get therapy.
Secondly, he’s trying to deal with Joassaint, who has called him since her arrest, exacerbating his pain at times.
“I called Miami police and they said block her,” Belval said. “The first time she called me, she told me, ‘How are you doing?’ I said, ‘Why are you calling my phone?’ She said, ‘I am calling you to see if you’re back to work. Have you buried your kids yet?’”
Belval said he followed police advice and blocked her number.
He believes Jossaint loves the children. He wishes he tried sooner to get emergency custody from her himself, but is upset DCF did not act on the allegations against Jossaint or force any actions.
Belval now has an attorney representing him to file suit against the state agency.
“They told me soon, they’re going to call a lawsuit against DCF,” Belval said. “Because DCF did not do their job.”
His attorney, Marc Brumer at Brumer & Brumer legal services in Miami, said they are suing on the grounds of neglect. He said they aim to file within the next 30 days.
“The father was trying to get [the kids] and then DCF does a report saying the kids are fine, when the kids were in the morgue dead.” Brumer said. “It’s hard to sue DCF, it’s a state, but I’m going to sue them for the way they let those kids down.”