A SHORT, UNHAPPY LIFE
A foster child, Dianne DeVanna just wanted to go home. That’s where she was killed.
Nearly 30 years ago, the murder of a young girl reverberated far beyond the South Shore and resulted in wholesale changes in the way the state deals with child abuse.
Eleven-year-old Dianne DeVanna was found dead in her Braintree home on Sept. 23, 1978, the victim of shocking cruelty at the hands of her father and stepmother. The little girl had been tortured, including being hanged by her feet from a staircase with her hands tied and mouth gagged. She died from a blood clot in her brain, caused by a blow to the head.
The case exposed huge gaps in the welfare system designed to protect children and led to the creation of the state Department of Social Services. After living in foster homes and residential facilities for six years, Dianne wanted to go home. A month before her murder, a judge ordered that she be returned to her family, even though all the professionals involved in the case argued against it.
What then-Norfolk County District Attorney William Delahunt called “one of cruelest and most sadistic” cases he had seen was also the impetus for The Dianne DeVanna Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect. The nonprofit organization named for the pretty young girl from Braintree grew out of donations sent to a memorial committee raising money to put a headstone on her grave. When a local company donated the headstone, the donations were used instead to establish the center.
Today, the DeVanna Center develops programs to reduce child abuse and neglect, supports parents and families in need and promotes child safety. It provides services to families being helped by the state Department of Social Services.
Dianne’s father, Sylvester DeVanna, died of a heart attack in prison in 1980 while serving a life sentence. His wife, Vincenza, served a 19- to 20-year term at MCI-Framingham for manslaughter.
The Patriot Ledger
The investigation into the death of a 4-year-old child in Hull could lead to a widening of the case beyond the girl’s parents who are charged with her murder.
Michael Riley, 34, and Carolyn Riley, 32, of Weymouth pleaded innocent yesterday in Hingham District Court to charges that they intentionally killed their daughter, Rebecca, by giving her repeated overdoses of a prescription drug and ignoring what prosecutors called her “obvious pain and suffering.”
They were held without bail for a court appearance March 6.
At a press conference in the courthouse lobby after the arraignment, Plymouth District Attorney Timothy Cruz said the investigation of Rebecca’s death in Hull continues.
He said his office has referred information about Tufts-New England Medical Center psychiatrist Kayoko Kifuji to the Board of Registration in Medicine. Kifuji prescribed a drug that contributed to Rebecca Riley’s death, clonidine. The doctor ordered the drug after diagnosing Rebecca with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and bipolar disorder when she was 28 months old. She also prescribed the antipsychotic drug Seroquel and an anti-seizure medication, Depakote.
John Darrell, the court-appointed lawyer for Michael Riley, questioned why prosecutors didn’t target the doctor, the pharmacy that filled the prescriptions and a relative who said he begged the couple to take Rebecca to the doctor in the days before she died.
“We’ve got two poor parents here,” Darrell said. The Rileys didn’t have the education to challenge professionals, he said.
Carolyn Riley’s half-brother, James McGonnell, who lived with the couple, told investigators he and his girlfriend repeatedly urged the parents to get medical care for Rebecca as her symptoms worsened. McGonnell told investigators that Rebecca coughed uncontrollably, vomited and “acted unusual” for four days until her death on Dec. 13.
“Why the hell didn’t he call an ambulance? Because it’s not truthful,” Darrell said.
“It’s clear that this case is about who is responsible: a disabled parent or a doctor,” said Carolyn Riley’s court-appointed attorney, Michael Bourbeau. “Carolyn Riley is a lifelong South Shore resident. She has cooperated completely” with investigators, he added.
Plymouth County First Assistant District Attorney Frank Middleton described a gruesome death as Rebecca’s condition deteriorated.
Medical Examiner Elizabeth Bundock told investigators that too much clonidine damaged Rebecca’s heart and lungs, Middleton said.
“The little body couldn’t pump blood” and Rebecca “began to die a slow death,” he said. “The symptoms would have been visible to anyone. ... She would have had massive trouble breathing.” Rebecca Riley “essentially drowned on liquid from the inside out,” Middleton said.
At this point in the hearing, Michael Riley put his head on Darrell’s shoulder and cried, while Carolyn Riley sat on a courtroom bench with her head down.
Middleton said the parents gave extra clonidine to Rebecca to “effectively shut her up” when she misbehaved or wouldn’t fall asleep.
Sue Reinert may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Patriot Ledger
Neighbors noted that the house was unkempt and the parents were seldom seen. Teachers told investigators that Rebecca Riley came to school in clothes that were too big or not warm enough. The 4-year-old was so lethargic, they said, they sometimes had to help her up the steps in school.
Pharmacists questioned the refills of clonidine, one of three psychotropic drugs the little girl was taking, two of which contributed to her death, according to the state medical examiner.
Her uncle and his fiancée saw she was sick and begged her parents to take her to the hospital, but never called 911 themselves.
Lots of people told police investigating the little girl’s death that something wasn’t right with Rebecca Riley and her family. But none of the systems designed to safeguard children like Rebecca managed to save her.
When Hull police found her dead on the floor of her parents’ bedroom just after 6:30 a.m., Dec. 13, Rebecca was dressed only in a pink pull-up diaper and gold pierced earrings with colored stones.
The affidavit submitted by State Trooper Anna C. Brookes, one of three lead investigators of Rebecca’s death, paints a picture of a family in extreme crisis despite having access to social services and medical treatment. Rebecca, her 11-year-old brother, her 6-year-old sister and mother were all on medication for mental illness, and their father told investigators he had intermittent rage disorder but was not on medication.
Denise Monteiro, a spokes-woman for the Department of Social Services, confirmed that the agency has had an open case on the family since 2005, when Michael Riley, Rebecca’s father, was accused of sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl. He had been ordered to leave the family’s house, then in Weymouth, and was allowed to have only supervised visits with his children.
Monteiro said the agency “wasn’t aware” of any change that allowed Michael Riley to move back in with his family.
An unidentified social worker from South Bay Mental Health in Weymouth began visiting the family in May. Her concerns about the amount of medication the children were receiving prompted her to contact their psychiatrist, Dr. Kayoko Kifuji of Tufts-New England Medical Center.
The social worker told Kifuji that the amount of medication Rebecca was receiving was unusual and that she saw no evidence of the diagnosis of hyperactivity for which the girl was being treated. Rebecca was also diagnosed as bipolar when she was 28 months old.
The social worker filed her first abuse or neglect report with DSS after a visit to the family’s home in which Carolyn Riley appeared heavily drugged. She told the therapist that Rebecca had urinated on the floor in her sleep, but she hadn’t cleaned up.
She filed a second report after Rebecca’s 6-year-old sister, Kaitlynne, told her that Michael Riley had hit her.
Of the two reports filed in 2006, Montero said one was “screened out” after DSS spoke to “the medical experts involved with the family” and determined the allegation “wasn’t pertinent.” The other was dismissed after the agency talked to “the medical expert involved with the mother.”
Department of Social Services officials met with the family in an office visit on Nov. 10, but didn’t visit the home in Hull where Rebecca died on Dec. 13. Monteiro would not say why the agency did not visit the home.
AMELIA KUNHARDT/The Patriot Ledger
The Elden H. Johnson Early Childhood Education Center at 70 Pearl Street, in Weymouth, is where Rebecca Riley, 4, attended classes.
The school nurse at the Elden Johnson Early Childhood Center, a public school in North Weymouth that Rebecca was attending, began noticing in October that Rebecca was too weak to play, and she told investigators that the girl’s teacher said she was lethargic, “becoming a little more awake-alert at the end of the day.”
Later in October, the teacher asked the nurse to watch Rebecca during gym class, at which point the nurse observed: “Eyes appear heavy - looks exhausted - felt like floppy doll on nurse’s lap.”
The nurse, who was not identified, told investigators she called Carolyn Riley several times to tell her that Rebecca was “out of it,” and she also spoke with Kifuji. School officials did not, however, contact DSS.
Victoria Silberstein, principal of the Johnson Center, said “our staff is very upset by this, and we’ve cooperated with the authorities to the fullest extent.”
Weymouth Superintendent Joseph Rull also said the school had been cooperating with investigators, and declined to address why school officials apparently did not report Rebecca’s neglect to DSS.
Marylou Sudders, president of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said Rebecca’s death demonstrates that adults need to be bolder about addressing children in crisis.
“In addition to a child’s death, which is a hideous enough tragedy, there were people around who should have noticed something,” Sudders said.
Julie Jette may be reached at email@example.com.
Sue Reinert may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.