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State failed Phoebe before she was thrown from bridge, report says

By Keith Morelli
Published: February 9, 2015 Updated: February 10, 2015 at 07:17 AM
Phoebe Jonchuck, 5, died last week after being thrown from a bridge. FAMILY PHOTO

TAMPA — The people and agencies meant to help children in need failed 5-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck nearly every step of the way before her father threw her to her death last month from a St. Petersburg bridge, according to a report from a task force created to look into the incident.

Dispatchers at a child abuse hotline twice took calls saying Phoebe was in danger in the two weeks before her death, but both times ruled the calls weren't worth taking action. The Department of Children and Families, which had looked into the actions of Phoebe's parents for years, also did not aggressively enough handle her case, the report said.

“That any child's life would end as Phoebe's did — at the hands of her own parent — is terrible beyond words,” said the report of the Critical Incident Rapid Response Team. “And we are reminded yet again that every process within our system should be critically examined at every opportunity to ensure that the role it plays is carried out effectively.

DCF Secretary Mike Carroll issued this statement on the release of the study:

“Phoebe's heart-breaking death points to some of the most challenging issues we struggle with in child welfare — mental health, substance abuse and domestic violence. The events on the day of Phoebe's death evolved quickly, and in response we immediately put new protocols in place at the Abuse Hotline to ensure we are equipped and prepared to respond more quickly and effectively.

“Even one child's death is too many,” he said, “and I will not tolerate anything less than 100 percent for the children we are charged with protecting.”

He said the department has made some “critical changes” to improve the process.

The DCF child-abuse hotline received two calls about Phoebe, one a week before her death in which her father, John Jonchuck, called to lodge a complaint about the child's mother, Michelle Kerr. The second was made the day she was killed, by an attorney who represented Jonchuck in a custody case. In both cases, hotline call-takers screened out the calls saying they did not rise to the standard of taking action.

The attorney earlier in the day had called 911 to report her concerns, and two Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies responded. The deputies interviewed Jonchuck and others and concluded there was no need for further action.

Twelve hours later, after Jonchuck was pulled over in St. Petersburg for speeding, and he grabbed his daughter from the back seat of the car and, as a shocked law enforcement officer watched, threw her over the railing of a bridge approaching the Sunshine Skyway.

Carroll said last month new protocols were put in place to more effectively deal with calls that involve mental health issues. They now require response within a four-hour time period.

In Hillsborough County, the sheriff's office handles child protection investigations.

“Based on this review, I am confident that the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office Child Protection Investigation Division will double down on their commitment to deploy the safety methodology and address the staffing challenges they face. Working together, we will continue to tighten the safety net to improve our system and practices and recommit to doing everything in our power to protect children from harm.”

The task force concluded that Phoebe's death could have been averted.

“Portions of Phoebe's family had come to the attention of the child welfare system on multiple occasions, and ... it appears that there were points at which further intervention or examination were warranted,” the report said.

Still, the report said, “Predicting the extreme nature of the events that manifested in the hours leading up to Phoebe's death would have been virtually impossible.

“Regarding Mr. Jonchuck, Jr. specifically, though there were prior indicators that he was manipulative, controlling, vindictive and aggressive, there were also repeated collateral contacts that he was an appropriate parent who provided for Phoebe's well-being and actively sought to protect and care for her.”

Here are the main findings of the investigation:

♦ The Florida Abuse Hotline does not currently have a consistent process to evaluate screened out reports or a training plan to teach staffers about mental health, substance abuse and domestic violence. The hotline last month did reorganize to try to address that issue.

♦ The hotline has a high number of vacancies and a high turnover rate, leading to high caseloads for the staff that remains.

♦ There are a “robust'' amount of domestic violence, substance abuse and mental health providers with the protective investigations staff in Hillsborough County, but they are used mostly as service resources rather than as subject matter experts or collaborative partners available for consultation during challenging investigations.

In the days after the tragedy, the department updated the protocol to include some obvious mental health symptoms to be easily categorized and accepted. In such cases, the department mandated immediate response and a law enforcement well-being check of the child.

Seven new screening questions have been added to be asked by hotline counselors or child protective investigators to determine if the child is in danger.

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