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DCF suspends worker who screened Phoebe Jonchuck call; judge may rule Friday on father's competency

A mourner holds a photo of 5-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck with a doll that had been placed in her casket during her funeral service last month at Lake Magdalene Methodist Church in Tampa.
Published Feb. 24, 2015

LARGO — The Department of Children and Families has suspended a counselor who screened out an abuse hotline call about John Jonchuck Jr. just 10 days before he dropped his daughter into Tampa Bay last month.

A state DCF official cited J'Nay Washington for mishandling the call, according to a letter released by the agency Tuesday. Washington spoke Dec. 29 with someone who raised questions about John Jonchuck's living arrangements and who reported that 5-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck had been hurt in the past. When later asked why she screened out the report, Washington told investigators that she was unable to verify Jonchuck's address.

"Your concern about the validity of the street address, standing alone, did not justify rejection of the report," James Cheatham, director of the Florida Abuse Hotline, wrote in the Feb. 19 letter. Washington will be suspended for three days.

Early on the morning of Jan. 8, John Jonchuck sped to the Dick Misener Bridge in St. Petersburg and dropped his daughter 62 feet into the water, according to authorities. The day before, another person called the abuse hotline to report that Jonchuck was behaving erratically, but that call was screened out as well.

Jonchuck, 25, faces a first-degree murder charge.

On Tuesday, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Chris Helinger ruled that prosecutors and defense attorneys can review notations made by mental health officials at the Pinellas County Jail regarding Jonchuck's behavior. Some of this information was used by one of two experts who concluded Jonchuck was mentally incompetent.

Helinger can rule on Jonchuck's competence as soon as Friday. If she concludes he is mentally competent and can understand the murder charge he is facing, the case can proceed.

But if Helinger rules Jonchuck is mentally incompetent and cannot understand the case against him, he would be sent to a prison hospital for mental health treatment. That would amount to a kind of time-out for the murder case. Nothing significant would happen until Jonchuck received the treatment and got well. After that, the case against him would resume.

None of this means Jonchuck is not guilty by reason of insanity. It's too early for attorneys to make such an argument, although it's possible they could do so in the future.

After Phoebe's death, DCF Secretary Mike Carroll immediately changed protocol for the state abuse hotline, mandating that child protective investigators respond within four hours if a caregiver is potentially experiencing a psychotic episode.

Carroll also dispatched a Critical Incident Rapid Response Team to investigate the agency's past dealings with Phoebe Jonchuck's family. The group's report, released earlier this month, acknowledged that DCF failed to protect the girl, though it also noted that nothing could have predicted her horrifying death.

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