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Child Thrown From Bridge in Tampa Prompts New Look at DCF’s Porous Safety Net

| January 13, 2015

John Jonchuck Jr in a pair of booking photos  from Hillsborough (right) and Pinellas counties.

John Jonchuck Jr in a pair of booking photos from Hillsborough (right) and Pinellas counties.

As the Tampa Bay area continues to reel from the death of 5-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck, whose father was charged with dropping her from a bridge last week, state leaders are looking for answers.

But records of the case reveal that many answers were already available — in the form of arrests that could have raised alarms at the state abuse hotline operated by the Florida Department of Children and Families.

“We definitely will be looking into the hotline,” said state Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat who chairs the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee.

Hours before the girl’s death, her father’s lawyer called the hotline to express fears that John Jonchuck would harm Phoebe. Jonchuck had a lengthy arrest record, including multiple arrests for domestic violence and battery on Michelle Kerr, Phoebe’s mother, stretching back to 2010, and one for battery on his mother, Michele Johnchuck, in 2013. He was also arrested for driving under the influence in 2013.

Additionally, Department of Children and Families records show that in 2012, child-protective investigators examined allegations that Jonchuck had choked Kerr, struck Phoebe, used the drug crystal meth and kicked open a door to extract Phoebe from a bedroom containing prescription drugs.

“(Jonchuck) has a criminal history that includes charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, larceny and multiple domestic-violence charges,” said a child-protective investigator’s report. “The mother indicated on the last report that there had been domestic violence between her and the father.”

Two days later, however, the investigation concluded that “the updated risk assessment for signs of present danger is low.” Phoebe was then 2 years old.

Nonetheless, when the lawyer’s call came in Wednesday, reporting that Jonchuck was “driving all over town in his pajamas with Phoebe” and “seems depressed and delusional,” the hotline staff concluded the report “does not rise to the level of reasonable cause to suspect.”

“I believe it was a judgment call that was lacking, given the history,” Sobel said.

In theory, problems at the hotline had been addressed several years before.

In 2012, following another gruesome child murder, that of Nubia Barahona in 2011, the hotline was revamped so that frontline staff could quickly research a family’s history and send crucial data to child-protective investigators. The 2012 Legislature appropriated $20 million to redesign the call center.

And last year, following a review by the non-profit Casey Family Programs of the deaths of 40 Florida children, lawmakers passed a sweeping reform law. It acknowledged that domestic violence, substance abuse and mental illness were potentially deadly factors, especially in the case of very young children.

“In addition to the lack of training in the area of domestic violence, equally disturbing is the fact that most people who work in the child-welfare system do not even have training in child development,” Miami-Dade County dependency-court Judge Cindy Lederman said in an email this week. “Without the child development training, it is difficult to understand the ramifications of violence on children. The lack of training in both fields creates ignorance that is harmful to children.”

So far Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll has changed the protocol at the hotline, so that if a caller alleges someone is having an acute mental-health episode, the department will immediately investigate. Now, frontline staffers are required to meet with the parent and potential victim within four hours.

Additionally, Carroll said Tuesday, adequate treatment services are needed to help troubled parents.

“The real root of the issue here, I think, is going to come around how we as a state deal with substance abuse and mental health in a family structure,” he said. “We are dealing with a lot of broken families who have substance-abuse and mental-health issues over a long period of time.”

A DCF Critical Incident Response Team is reviewing the Jonchuck case and will issue a report within 30 days.

Phoebe’s funeral will be held Wednesday morning in Tampa.

–Margie Menzel, News Service of Florida

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16 Responses for “Child Thrown From Bridge in Tampa Prompts New Look at DCF’s Porous Safety Net”

  1. Anonymous says:

    What happened to that child is heart wrenching. How horrific her last moments of her life must have been. That being said, I fear the lines are going to get very sticky regarding those with mental health and substance abuse issues — which by itself, are not reasons to have your child taken from you. Keeping children safe while giving their parents the opportunity to be treated and live a healthy life as a family will be very challenging. “The state” cannot keep every child safe. Unfortunately, children will die. I pray that those struggling with mental health issues and substance abuse are able to get the treatment they need in order to be functioning guardians of their children. I pray that the state does not start ripping families apart based on untreated medical conditions. Most of all, I pray for all the children living in fearful situations who need help. In the Mighty Name of Jesus I pray for progress in diagnosing and treating conditions which put children in harms way. Amen.

  2. Nalla C. says:

    This is what happens when tax money dries up, we all need to start cutting corners. There are not enough people to adequately staff and maintain protocol at DCF–or just about any other government-run office. Because AUSTERITY! When are we going to realize that if you want appropriate care and intervention, you have to have enough staff to carry the workload?

    For example, you can surely bet that “frontline staffers are required to meet with the parent and potential victim within four hours.” was a change made in protocol because there is not enough staff to address it faster/better/any other way that involves an immediate visit/intervention/call to law enforcement. It is NOT DCF’s fault if this turns out to be about staffing, it’s about the people in charge of government and allocating funding to HIRE enough people to STAFF IT at all.

    This has to stop being the benchmark. Either give government agencies what they need to do their jobs right, or stop complaining when a completely-unglued human being kills another kid.

    • Angel Heart says:

      Nalla I agree with you they need to stop cutting corners this is not Walmart job this is about being there to protect those in need

    • Anonymous says:

      Why does every tragedy have to be exploited for political purposes? Growing government ad infinitum isn’t going to eliminate human suffering.

      • Nalla C. says:

        Your first misunderstanding is clear from your use of the words “growing government”. The government isn’t any bigger. It is being deliberately shrunk. The people who deliberately do that are POLITICIANS. Therefore this is POLITICAL as an issue. It’s about austerians–look it up–who are taking hatchets to budgets to the point where there isn’t enough HUMAN RESOURCE to do the job we need done. Stop whining about “growing government” and be glad you have one at all. With it, you have civilization.

  3. Sherry Epley says:

    Right ON “Nalla C. says”. . . people of our state are suffering greatly under the current administration who is hell bent on cutting the budget for social services and education in favor of tax cuts for the 1%, and for businesses owners who offer the lowest of wages. What we see in these all too frequent horrific stories is a recipe for disaster. . . all caused by budget cuts!

    The biggest tragedy is that our voters are duped into voting the party line and electing the same candidates who worship money over humans again and again!

  4. Anonymous says:

    The sad fact is, a narcissist can fool anybody and present themselves well when it is their best interest to do so. This guy should have a careful evaluation by someone who knows what they are doing and won’t be fooled by his (or his attorney’s) focus on his “Depression.” What he did was inexcusable and he should be made to take full responsibility. Make no mistake. This is a case of pay-back and “if I can’t have (it), no one can.”

  5. confidential says:

    The money has not dried up…as the taxpayers keep on paying higher taxes, these Tallahassee legislators and their governor keep taking away from the poor and children to benefit the wealthy in Florida and the current staff in charge of our children welfare at least in Florida is a joke starting with the administrators paid king ransom’s salaries for doing nothing! They do not care a bout these children they only care about how big their checks can be after the politicking.

  6. Well... says:

    This is why some people should not be allowed to procreate.

  7. Nalla C. says:

    Correct: the money has not dried up, it’s just gone into the pockets of the one percent. Which, I can assure you, is in VERY FEW pockets at DCF. Sad, but true–by the time government is done “cutting back”, we’ll be lucky to have any civilization at all. That’s worth noting, because we all need to quit begging for limited government, as clearly, those in charge don’t understand what that means, they think it means we want to defund it completely and that’s not true.

  8. Groot says:

    This is not necessarily about enough staff, it’s about qualified staff. I actually had a DCF supervisor tell me her job was the only one she could get because she only had a high school diploma. I was not seeking services, just talking to her socially. This is a shame since people’s lives and basic needs depend on DCF. If DCF cannot atttract and retain qualified staff due to low pay, one solution is to contract out all services to private, qualified contractors and then hold them to higher standards. So many trajic and fatal stories about DCF in the news. There has to be a better way.

  9. What's Happening says:

    Those words look good on paper, and might sound good in theory, but the part where there’s a “holding them to higher standards” never seems to follow any “contracting” that happens to take root in a strapped-for-cash government.

    What you’re really advocating with such wording is privatization. That has to stop. Government is not now, nor was it ever, meant to be a profit-making venture. The solution would be to “hire qualified people to do particular, specific jobs” and hire enough of them to do it, in this case so we can have qualified counselors who could immediately respond when some poor soul has snapped and is threatening to harm a child in public. You’re right about this much–if it’s a job that some bean-counter decided could be a low-paying job, well, they’re stupid. Like another poster said, this isn’t some crappy variety-store retail-job, this is serious humanity that needs qualified professionals to make more than a few life-and-death decisions from time to time. You can’t do that and do it right if you do not have the human resources. It is that simple.

  10. Groot says:

    Actually contracing out to private and then managing the contract is and has been the way of the future for many years now in state governments. Medicaid Managed Care comes to mind as a very successful and profitable solution to the waste that has occurred with regular Medicaid. Even Medicare is contracted out to contracting Medicare Choice HMOs. DCF at the local level is not a core government service, it could be contracted out. All those funds that go for health ins, retirement, annual leave, equipment could be focused on contracting social service agencies and then hold them to high standards. You just write the standards in the contract, monitor and ding them or get rid of them if they don’t cut it. Hey, DCF has very few offices here anyway, almost everyone works from home. They only go to the office quarterly and for meetings. If you would have told my boss in state government or my professor in my graduate program government was not supposed to make a profit, they would have given you an earful. We used to make a lot of money for the state legislature off the feds and the hospitals. It’s not how it used to be.

  11. What's Happening says:

    It’s been “the wave of the future”, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing, Groot. I don’t see you denying that you’re describing “privatization”. That’s exactly what is wrong with “government” today: lawmakers are forcing all these municipalities into privatizing, whether they want to or not, because all the lawmaker favors given to the uber-rich, so they don’t pay ANY tax. Now there’s no money to pay for standard services, because Regular Joes like you and me can’t possibly contribute enough to make up the difference of the monies that these corpos should pay, which they get out of paying due to cronyism and corrupting of government.

    Posting as if “the wave of the future” as you describe it is the only possible way to go is not very honest, since that’s clearly not the case. If these corpos getting favors would actually pay the taxes instead of getting undeserved breaks, there would be funding for stuff like this. It’s not rocket science.

  12. confidential says:

    @Groot. Some un college degree’s do a better job than a highly educated one. Example in my professional life and not being a college degree myself, my employer had me always training the higher paid than me, newcomers just right out fresh of some university with a shinny degree.The issue here is not higher education but instead higher responsibility individuals chosen after being properly screened for properly handling a labor of compassion and love with a sensitive issue as children and families are.
    Also how many billionaires we have that never had or finished their college degrees? How many success stories from un college individuals we see around.

  13. Dantel says:

    ….can’t wait to waste money on a trial to determine what we already know

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