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Despite 18 Investigations, DCF Claims Man’s 7 Murders in Bell Couldn’t Have Been Foreseen

| October 2, 2014

Don Spirit murdered his daughter and six grandchildren before killing himself.

Don Spirit murdered his daughter and six grandchildren before killing himself.

Facing scrutiny after a Gilchrist County man murdered his daughter and six grandchildren before committing suicide, the Florida Department of Children and Families on Wednesday said it would undertake increased staff training and other reforms — but concluded the rampage could not have been foreseen.

A preliminary report released by the department said the family was involved in 18 child-protective investigations from February 2006 to last month, with the grandfather, Don Spirit, involved in six of the investigations and alleged to be the perpetrator in three of the cases. In one instance, for example, investigators confirmed that Spirit physically abused his then-pregnant daughter, Sarah. She became one of his murder victims Sept. 18 and was the mother of the six dead children.

But the report said investigators could not have known that Spirit would ultimately go on the killing spree.

“The events that unfolded in Bell, Florida, on September 18, 2014, were an incredible tragedy that cuts to the heart of DCF’s mission,” the report said. “The senseless murder of these innocent children and their mother is an extreme outlier. There is no evidence to suggest that anyone, at any time, could have known that Don Spirit was capable of the premeditated and intentional massacre of his six grandchildren, his daughter, and then himself. However, there will never be one child who dies without DCF working to determine what changes can be made or processes improved to prevent future tragedy.”

The murders drew national attention to the small town of Bell and led to questions about whether the Department of Children and Families could have done more to protect the children. The department and the Gilchrist County Sheriff’s Office visited the family’s home as recently as Sept. 2, but the report said a case note indicated that the children were not “in imminent danger of illness or injury from abuse, neglect or abandonment.”

Also, however, the report suggested that familiarity with the family in the rural area might have influenced the way the situations were handled.

“This family was well known to staff, law enforcement, the school system and everybody who resided in this small community,” the report said. “This level of familiarity played a role in ongoing assessments of the family. Staff thought they knew and understood the dynamics and child safety risks within this family and their view of the family appeared not to change over time. Staff essentially became conditioned to emerging factors that should have more fully informed their assessment.”

Spirit, 51, used a .45-caliber handgun to shoot his 28-year-old daughter, Sarah, and her children, 11-year-old Kaleb Kuhlmann, 9-year-old Kylie Kuhlmann, 8-year-old Johnathan Kuhlmann, 5-year-old Destiny Stewart, 4-year-old Brandon Stewart, and 2-month-old Alanna Stewart. He then called authorities, waited for them to arrive and shot himself.

In the aftermath of the killings, the Department of Children and Families sent what is known as the “Critical Incident Rapid Response Team” to Gilchrist County to examine the agency’s involvement with the family and to look at potentially broader issues with the system of care in the county west of Gainesville. The preliminary report released Wednesday stems from the team’s work.

In an email accompanying the report, department Interim Secretary Mike Carroll announced a series of actions the agency will take, including immediate retraining for Chiefland-based investigative staff members who handled the Spirit case. Also, Carroll said the department will require statewide training for all child-protective investigators on fact-gathering before the start of investigations.

In another move, Carroll said the department will take more decisive steps to ensure that its staffers are using a process known as the “Rapid Safety Feedback” system, which allows quality-assurance specialists to oversee a child-protective investigation in real time. He said the department will carry out the change by using 37 of 270 new positions funded during the spring legislative session.

“I have been with the department for 25 years,” Carroll said. “And I thought I had seen it all until this tragedy occurred.”

–Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida

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9 Responses for “Despite 18 Investigations, DCF Claims Man’s 7 Murders in Bell Couldn’t Have Been Foreseen”

  1. JG says:

    It’s not like these are the first children killed while the DCF twiddled its bureaucratic thumbs.

  2. beachbum says:

    The underlying tragedy here is that a young woman continued to have more children (victims) after what appears to be numerous DCF investigations. Why would someone continue to bring children (victims) into an already unstable environment that required DCF intervention? May these innocent, troubled children rest in heavenly peace.

  3. Sherry Epley says:

    The cut backs by Rick Scott most certainly played a role in the lack of protection for these children!

    May 26, 2011|By Kate Santich, Orlando Sentinel
    The Florida Department of Children and Families began issuing layoff notices Thursday to nearly 500 employees — a move officials said would save taxpayers $48 million while preserving the agency’s protection and care of abused and neglected kids.

    The layoffs are a result of budget cuts passed by the Florida Legislature and signed into law Thursday by Gov. Rick Scott. They come as the department has faced sharp criticism for its handling of the Barahona case in south Florida.

  4. beachbum says:

    While I agree with you, Sherry, with regard the budget cuts, we each still have a responsibility to society to be prudent and reasonable. There is no prudency or reason in the decision to bring six (6!) children into a clearly non-functioning, or, at the very least, already overwhelmed environment. There’s no agency in the world that would ever be able to keep up with poor choices and lack of family planning. It’s easy to hold them responsible when something like this happens, but short of assigning a one-on-one ratio (one DCF employee per investigated household), it’s impossible to anticipate and prevent tragedies such as these. We, as a society, must stop placing blame on the faceless employees of our understaffed government agencies and start holding our American citizens to a higher level of accountability. May God bless these innocent souls and shelter them from suffering.

  5. Seminole Pride says:

    Their are so many children that are being raised by parents, that cannot provide a suitable life, home, and well being for them. This sounds like the Grandfather had a lot of responsibility in raising these children, and couldn’t take it anymore. Grands parents shouldn’t be ask to raise children, just a visit now and then.

  6. Sherry Epley says:

    @beachbum Of course I agree that our culture and society needs to become healthier. Unfortunately those kinds of cultural shifts take generations. . . if they happen at all. Just pointing fingers and repeating over and over that families need to “take responsibility” and then yanking out the $ for social programs doesn’t solve the problems in the short or long term.

    It begins with common sense measures like convenient/inexpensive birth control, better education, much improved long term mental health services, reforming Welfare so that people are not motivated to have more children, and on and on.

    Rick Scott simply doesn’t get it. . . his obsession with manipulating government tax $ to benefit big business instead of supporting the struggling citizens is creating an even more unhealthy culture/society! His policies are setting Florida on a terrible path! One from which it will take our citizens years and years to recover!

  7. beachbum says:

    I’m in total agreement and am, in no way, a fan of Rick Scott. Sadly, I think we have evolved TO this society, not FROM this society. He certainly isn’t helping the situation.

  8. Seminole Pride says:

    In today’s society, it cost aprox. $ 245,000 to raise a child from birth to 18 years old. That’s about $ 13,600 a year. Why do we keep on allowing these parents to keep on having babies ? They obviously can not afford to raise them.

  9. Kj Williams says:

    Interesting how some people cry “keep government off our backs” and then when something happens the same people cry “The government should be doing more.” DCF is the “government”. Which way do you want it?

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