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DCF'S FIRST CONTACT WITH SPIRIT FAMILY WAS IN 2006

The agency says nothing in its records would have predicted the family's massacre in Bell.

By Carol Marbin Miller and Audra D.S. Burch

Miami Herald

The calls to Florida's abuse hotline about the peculiar parenting methods of Sarah Lorraine Spirit began in 2008, and continued unabated until Spirit's entire family was slaughtered on Sept. 18.

The 18 investigations included nearly every type of abuse or neglect in the agency's handbook: beatings, burnings, medical neglect, poor supervision, drug abuse, abandonment, and domestic battery among them.

Mike Carroll, secretary of the state's Department of Children and Families, released a detailed review on the killings Wednesday - the first report written by the agency's new Critical Incident Rapid Response Team, created earlier this year by the Florida Legislature.

DCF also released hundreds of pages of detailed records on the family to the Miami Herald in response to a public records request. The records trace the family's history with the state since 2006.

In the report, DCF administrators insisted there was nothing in its eight-year history with the Spirit family that could have predicted that grandfather Don Spirit would shoot his entire family.

Killed were Alana Stewart, 2 months; Brandon Stewart, 4; Destiny Stewart, 5; Johnathan Kuhlmann, 8; Kylie Kuhlmann, 9, and Kaleb Kuhlmann, 11. Don Spirit also killed his daughter, age 28, before fatally shooting himself.

"The events that unfolded in Bell," the report said, "were an incredible tragedy that cuts to the heart of DCF's mission. 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."

The rampage sent shock waves through the tiny town of Bell, in Gilchrist County. And it has reignited concerns about Florida's chronically troubled child welfare system, which was at the center of withering criticism and a legislative overhaul bill earlier this year.

The detailed records suggest DCF's frequent contacts with the Spirit family often left the small children no better off than before the investigations began.

One of the last calls to the agency's hotline was received at 8:26 p.m. Sept. 1.

Spirit and her boyfriend were smoking both marijuana and a synthetic form of the drug "around the kids," the report said, and Spirit had been arrested for drug possession weeks earlier.

"The adults' eyes are always half-closed," a report said, due to the drug abuse.

The next day, a school guidance counselor for one of the children said she had paid Spirit's electrical bill "so the lights wouldn't get turned off."

Records released to the Herald show a DCF investigator spoke with Sarah Spirit on Sept. 4 at 10:30 a.m. Spirit insisted that the hotline call was a false report made maliciously by her boyfriend's mother, part of a "family feud."

The grandmother's reports, Spirit said, were an attempt "to cause her problems."

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