HIALEAH -- A day after a fire tore through a Hialeah home, killing four children trapped behind wrought-iron security bars, the father of one of them said the children should never have been left in their mother's care.
Roger Jean Joseph said he was angry that his 6-year-old daughter was killed in the blaze, weeks before a hearing during which he planned to ask a judge for custody of the girl
The state Department of Children & Families removed Marie Auguste's children from her home two months ago but returned them days later, according to police.
"Why [they] gave her the children back?" he said, his voice rising. "I'm very mad. I loved my daughter. My daughter loved me too."
Joseph, who was in a relationship with Auguste from 1996 to 1999, said authorities also had removed Auguste's oldest son from her home almost two decades ago. Peter Coats, a DCF spokesman, declined to comment. Court records show Auguste was sentenced in 1985 to five years of probation for an aggravated child-abuse charge.
Auguste and her 13-year-old son survived the blaze. Four other children, a 17-year-old boy and his sisters, ages 12, 6 and 6 months, were severely burned and died from smoke inhalation.
Investigators are still trying to determine the cause of the fire, but they consider it suspicious.
On Monday, neighbors shook their heads as they spoke of the tragedy. They also wondered whether the bars they have relied on to keep burglars out of their homes also might prevent their families from escaping a blaze.
"We want to feel secure and now we see that no one can come inside, but maybe one day we can't get out either," said Milagros Perez, who lives across the street from the pink stucco home that went up in flames early Sunday morning.
Since the fire, Perez said the bars on her own windows and doors don't provide her with the sense of security they used to. "What happened over there is very sad," she said.
Police said the iron bars on the home's windows and doors likely made escape impossible for the children trapped inside and delayed help from rescuers who struggled to gain access to the home.
"It's something that has hit us hard because those little angels didn't deserve to die like that," said Xiomara Eijan, who lives next door to the family along a busy swath of West 41st Street in Hialeah. Melted Christmas lights adorn the bars that enclose Auguste's front porch. A miniature basketball lay discarded next to a 6-foot gate around the front yard. The mailbox is decorated with silver bells and shiny red garland.
Auguste's neighbors thought highly of the single mother, although they barely knew her.
A Haitian immigrant who spoke Creole and English but little Spanish, Auguste was not able to communicate with many of her neighbors in Hialeah, where Cubans are majority.
But her neighbors recalled how nice and quiet the family was, how the mother took good care of her children and how the young kids rarely left their home.
Workers at a nearby Cuban cafeteria said Auguste loved her children, often bragging about her newborn baby when she came in for caf