LARGO — A Pinellas sheriff's child protective investigator has been fired and could face criminal charges after an investigation found she made a child custody recommendation to a judge as a favor to a friend.
Jayne Johnson, who has worked for the Sheriff's Office since 1999 and the Florida Department of Children and Families before that, was fired Friday by Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
Johnson interviewed three children — relatives of a friend — using Sheriff's Office resources and didn't report allegations of child abuse, Gualtieri said Friday.
Her actions, which were reported to the Sheriff's Office by a circuit judge, constitute a possible third-degree felony under Florida law, which requires Johnson, in her role as a child welfare investigative supervisor, to report potential abuse.
"She knows full and well when there's an allegation like this, it has to be investigated to make sure the kids are safe and, if not, remove them from the environment," the sheriff said. "And she left these kids hanging."
Johnson, 56, could not immediately be reached for comment.
The investigation determined Johnson, also a licensed clinical social worker, was acting at the request of a friend who was related to the stepmother of the children, Gualtieri said. The biological father and mother were involved in a child custody battle.
Johnson's friend told Johnson she felt the children should live with their biological father over the mother because the children had started showing behavioral issues she attributed to the mother and her husband.
Johnson agreed to conduct a psycho-social evaluation on the children, the sheriff said. The father brought the children in July to the Sheriff's Office, where Johnson, in her uniform, interviewed them for about two hours.
She learned from the children — ages 6, 7 and 9 — that the mother and her husband were doing drugs and drinking excessively in front of them while the mother was pregnant with another child. One child also implied they had been threatened with violence.
She penned a letter to Circuit Judge Jack Helinger supporting the biological father's home as the "safer environment for the children." She also wrote she would "strongly recommend" the children undergo therapy and that the mother and her husband take a urine analysis.
She signed the letter as a licensed clinical social worker with no mention of her capacity at the Sheriff's Office. Still, the letter led to confusion in court about whether a child welfare investigation was open against the biological mother.
The father presented the letter to Helinger at a hearing in August, according to a letter from the judge to Gualtieri. He inquired about Johnson's involvement and learned of her friendship with the stepmother's family. The father told the judge he had taken the children to the Sheriff's Office to be interviewed.
"Finding this entire situation extremely unusual," Helinger wrote, he called Johnson in court. She explained that she held the interviews at the Sheriff's Office out of convenience for the parents and conducted the interviews on her lunch break.
"I am highly concerned about this situation," he wrote. "Most certainly this was not an independent, unbiased letter."
Helinger declined to comment through a court spokesman.
Along with the termination, the Sheriff's Office opened a criminal investigation against Johnson that will be forwarded to the State Attorney's Office, Gualtieri said. There is now also an open child welfare investigation related to the family.
"It's mind-boggling," he said. "She did nothing to make sure these kids were safe."
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Kathryn Varn at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.