Editorial: When in doubt, take the child

One year ago, 5-year-old Phoebe JonChuck was dropped from this bridge to her death. The question for which there is still no satisfying answer: Why couldn't the state save this child? CHERIE DIEZ   |   Times
One year ago, 5-year-old Phoebe JonChuck was dropped from this bridge to her death. The question for which there is still no satisfying answer: Why couldn't the state save this child?CHERIE DIEZ | Times
Published January 15 2016
Updated January 15 2016

Phoebe Jonchuck never had a chance. Her short life was scarred by parental neglect, countless homes, domestic violence and her father's mental health issues. The number of opportunities to save her was staggering, and so was the courage of people who sounded the alarm on her behalf. Yet the 5-year-old was dropped from a bridge by her father into the cold, dark waters of Tampa Bay. The first anniversary of Phoebe's death resurrects the question for which there is no satisfying answer: Why couldn't the state save this child?

The Jonchuck family was well known to the Department of Children and Families. In "The long fall of Phoebe Jonchuck," a Tampa Bay Times special investigation, staff writer Lane DeGregory revealed that Phoebe came from a family with generations of dysfunction. The girl's parents had a history of domestic abuse, vindictive behavior and custody squabbles. Her grandmother was a drug addict who struggled to get clean for Phoebe's sake. Her grandfather had been abusive. And her father, John Jonchuck Jr., had been involuntarily committed 27 times. So far, he has been deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial for killing his daughter.

Government can only do so much. Acting on our behalf, it cannot be expected to solve generations of dysfunction in families. It cannot fix every individual's bad decisions. It cannot repair every broken relationship. But when there is so much doubt about a child's safety and welfare, government's obligation is to take the child.

When Phoebe was killed, the DCF was overhauling how it handles safety plans for the state's most at-risk children. Months earlier, the Legislature had passed sweeping reform legislation in the aftermath of news reports about the deaths of more than 400 children who had been in contact with the agency over a five-year period. Despite the DCF's involvement in their cases, children still died. Many perished at the hands of family members, reflecting the fatal flaw in the state's bias toward family preservation. The Legislature put more than $40 million toward the reform effort, including money to hire new caseworkers and child protective investigators, who were poorly paid to juggle unreasonable numbers of highly stressful cases and routinely make life and death decisions.

Then came Phoebe. She was a test case of sorts for the new standards. A lawyer who met with her father hours before her fall twice called authorities to report that Jonchuck was mentally unstable and had a child with him who could be in serious danger. Sheriff's deputies who responded to a 911 call found Jonchuck and Phoebe at a church and determined there was no cause for alarm. A hotline counselor who answered the lawyer's second call for help said the situation did not meet the standard for opening a case.

A DCF report that analyzed Phoebe's case after her death revealed that the Sheriff's Office had not fully implemented the new safety plan methodology adopted by the state. If it had, Phoebe might have been saved. Her death caused the DCF to re-examine calls to its hotline. Now counselors ask callers about the caregiver's mental state. Answers that indicate a problem trigger a visit from investigators within four hours. That is a major improvement that the DCF says has resulted in more than 900 calls being sent to investigators. At least one life has been saved.

Now, nearly two years into its child welfare reform, the DCF reports on a public website each child fatality not tied to natural causes. In 2015, child deaths increased by 6.3 percent to 472. So, too, did the number of children who died after their families were involved with the DCF. The transparency is welcome, but the data show a system still in crisis.

On the front lines, child protective investigators, the first to respond to reports of child abuse or neglect, are still overworked and underpaid. In Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, this work is performed by the sheriff's offices. With funding from the Legislature, Pinellas updated equipment and added about five new investigators, bringing individual caseloads down to a more manageable 12 to 15 per investigator. But in Hillsborough, the $1 million the department received from the Legislature is used mostly to pay for overtime. Investigators juggle as many as 35 cases. Turnover is high, and despite aggressive recruiting efforts, interest in the positions is low. The starting salary for investigators in Hillsborough is about $40,000 a year, one of the highest in the state. But the money is hardly an enticement for the long hours and high stress the job involves.

Eckerd Community Alternatives, which handles casework for Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties, used its share of the additional funding from the Legislature to bump up the base salaries of its case managers to $37,500 and to drive down worker caseloads. That was a good use of state money that, for a while, helped decrease turnover rates. But now that several Florida counties, including Hillsborough, are seeing a significant increase in the number of children entering the system because of the state's new methodology, turnover rates are creeping back up. Lawmakers cannot ignore this need.

Child welfare is not among the big issues before the Legislature this session. But lawmakers must remain engaged on the issue. They can start by setting aside more money to offer raises and higher salaries to child protection investigators and caseworkers. Gov. Rick Scott has proposed giving the DCF $14.8 million to hire 272 case management workers. The Legislature should honor that request.

The state also needs significant mental health reform. Several bills before the Legislature focus on improving mental health care in the state and deserve serious consideration.

The sad case of Phoebe Jonchuck demonstrates there are many opportunities to help a child in serious trouble. In Phoebe's case, potential rescuers included teachers, law enforcement officers, hotline operators, family members, friends, caseworkers, mental health professionals and others who knew her but could not help. Phoebe's fall from the bridge took seconds, but she had been slipping away for years.

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