Senate President Andy Gardiner wants review of services after Phoebe Jonchuck's death

Published February 16 2015
Updated February 16 2015

TALLAHASSEE — Senate President Andy Gardiner wants the state to focus more on mental-health issues after the child-welfare system was stunned by the death of a 5-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck whose father is accused of dropping her into Tampa Bay.

The Orlando Republican said he has asked Sen. Rene Garcia, chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, "to do a complete review of mental health, just all the way across the board."

Following last week's release of a report on the Jan. 8 death of Phoebe, Gardiner called the case "just unbelievable." He said he wanted to go beyond the obvious: two calls to a state abuse hotline that failed to spark a child-protective investigation — even though one call came from a lawyer for the girl's father, John Jonchuck.

"Let's not just look at the phone calls that came in, but should the father have had custody in the first place," Gardiner told the News Service of Florida in an interview last week. "Let's focus on the underlying problem of custody and … I just want a holistic look at everything, and find out what we can do better, and what works."

The report on the 5-year-old's death found that in addition to the fumbled calls, neither Phoebe nor her father was referred for protective or mental-health services.

What's more, the report found, John Jonchuck's family had been known to the Department of Children and Families "since he was a small child."

"The Jonchuck family struggled with (John Jonchuck's) mental health issues … self-injurious behaviors and delinquency during his teen years, until he went to live with family friends at age 17 in 2006," the report, by what is known as the Critical Incident Rapid Response Team, said. "During his childhood, the family was reported to the department on four separate occasions, with all investigations resulting in no verified findings of maltreatments."

Jonchuck now faces questions about whether he is mentally competent to stand trial in his daughter's death, with two doctors saying last week he is not competent, according to numerous media reports.

"Everything has its time in the Legislature, and this is the time for us to delve into mental health and substance abuse," said Rep. Gayle Harrell, chairwoman of the House Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee. "One of the things that has become very evident is the strong influence of substance abuse and mental health issues in causing child deaths."

Harrell's panel will take up the question early in the legislative session, which starts March 3. She said her plans are part of a larger House commitment to the issue including not only child welfare but criminal justice, pointing to the House Judiciary Committee, which will hold a workshop Wednesday on issues related to people with mental illnesses in the criminal-justice system.

On Tuesday, Harrell's panel will take up the Critical Incident Rapid Response Team report on Phoebe Jonchuck's death. Mark Fontaine, executive director of the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association, also pointed to the report, which found that a "robust" array of services was available in Tampa — but went unused.

"So we have services, and they're available to refer to, but those experts aren't part of the decision-making process about how do you serve that family," Fontaine said. "We have to get away from a referral mentality to an integrated service mentality. And I think that is the challenge."

Gardiner and Garcia are eying a review of programs already providing mental-health services.

"There's a lot of programs that nobody has ever really said, 'Okay, what are we accomplishing from that?' " Gardiner said. "Before we throw more money at it, let's make sure it's working."

"I think that is the first step that we in the state of Florida have to do," said Garcia, whose budget panel took up the question of mental-health services last week. "What system can we put in place that we can monitor the checks and balances to make sure that the people who need the services are getting the services?"

Fontaine agreed that providers will have to spend their funding more effectively. But he also pointed to a 2010 report by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, which found that the national average for per capita spending on substance-abuse and mental-health services is $120.56 — but in Florida, it's $39.55. Only two states spent less.

Additionally, Gardiner and Garcia have been watching the Central Receiving Center in Orlando, which screens people upon arrest to determine whether to place them in the criminal-justice system or in treatment for addiction or mental-health issues.

"It has worked pretty well," Gardiner said. "It has kept them out of the emergency room. It's kept them out of prison. Those are the type of things I'd like to see us have a dialogue about."

"We can't continue to do business as usual," Garcia said.

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