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The Newark Star-Ledger, (NJ)
January 18, 1996
Author: ROBERT E. MISSECK
Janine Berreman was suffering from clinical depression and was taking the medication Prozac at the time of her 2-year-old foster child’s death, her attorney said yesterday. The 39-year-old Westfield woman, charged with aggravated manslaughter in the death of Jamila Esposito-Elfilali, posted bail yesterday and was taken to the psychiatric emergency room at Elizabeth General Medical Center, said her attorney, Richard Kress of Clark.
A nursing supervisor at the hospital said last night Berreman was undergoing psychiatric evaluation. While Berreman was being held in the medical unit of the Union County Jail in Elizabeth she was on a 24-hour suicide watch, according to Kress. “I feel she’s less of a threat to herself now than she was when she was originally held last Friday,” said Kress. “They should have done this originally.”
The lawyer said he did not know whether Berreman ever told officials at the state Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) that she was suffering from depression and on the medication when the agency placed Jamila with her in April. “I don’t think DYFS was aware of the whole situation, Kress said. “I don’t think you can poiint a finger at DYFS.”
Berreman had been taking Prozac, a prescription anti-depressant, for more than a year, Kress said. Berreman’s first appearance in court is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. tomorrow before Superior Court Judge Joan Robinson Gross in Elizabeth.
Kress said his client is “upset and extremely distraught” over Jamila’s death. “We maintain that this was nothing more than an accidental injury which caused her death,” Kress said. “There were never any previous acts of any hitting of the child. She loved her and treated her well.” Union County authorities, however, said an autopsy disclosed evidence the girl was fatally injured by her foster mother.
Preliminary results of an autopsy indicated Jamila’s death was caused by severe head trauma “leading to injury to the brain,” said acting Union County Prosecutor Edward M. Neafsey. The child, who turned 2 on Dec. 29, was taken to Overlook Hospital in Summit last Thursday and placed on life support. She never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead 2:20 p.m. Saturday.
Berreman’s husband, Ron, also is distraught over the child’s death and is supportive of his wife, Kress said. “This was their first time at being foster parents, and they really took care of her,” Kress said. “The task right now is to get some help for Janine in order for her to deal with this tragedy.”
The couple has been married six years and lived at 552 Boulevard in Westfield since 1990. Mrs. Berreman’s parents, Jerry and Norma Rosa, recently moved to an upstairs apartment in the house. “The Rosas were the caretakers of the child as well, and they looked at her as being their granddaughter,” Kress said.
Jamila’s natural parents, Anna Esposito and Abderrahim Elfilali of Plainfield, were devastated by their daughter’s death, and are burying her today. They said they want justice and an explanation from DYFS. Winnie Comfort, a spokeswoman for DYFS, said the incident was a tragedy.
“We have maybe 6,000 children at any given time in foster care in New Jersey,” she said. “Our foster parents are by and large dedicated, unsung heroes in this state.” Comfort defended DYFS’ screening process, saying it is “extensive and designed to illuminate anything that could be a problem” in people’s ability to be foster parents. What DYFS officials cannot do, she said, is anticipate human behavior with 100 percent accuracy. The screening process, she said, includes fingerprints for criminal history, a check on possible child-abuse histories and a study of the home. There are also personal and employment references, interviews and medical references.
“We ask the prospective foster parents for names of any treating physicians, and then we survey the physicians and we ask questions about physical health, emotional health, medications and hospitalizations,” Comfort said. “All of those questions have got to be positively answered for them to become foster parents. “We would need to know if they were on medication (and) what the medication was. We need to know if they are being treated for any kind of emotional illness.”
The last question always is to ask physicians if there are any reasons why this person should not be a foster parent. Comfort said DYFS has a supporting role to play in a tragedy like this. “Our role in a situation like this terrible tragedy is to be of whatever assistance to the child’s family and to the foster parent’s family,” she said. “We checked with the child’s family to see if we can help them with funeral arrangements.”
To pay for Berreman’s $200,000 bail, her father put up two homes with a total equity of $362,000.
Record Number: star199631377b91541