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Many signs before slaughter of family in Bell last month

A Florida child welfare report alleging that the six children of Sarah Spirit were not safe with their mother languished for two weeks without investigation — until the youngsters' grandfather shot the entire family on Sept. 18, records show.

On Sept. 1, the abuse hotline of the Department of Children and Families received a report that Spirit's children — who ranged from 2 months to 11 years old — were at risk because the adults in their Bell home were abusing both marijuana and Spice, or K2, a synthetic and sometimes dangerous form of the drug.

Records released to the Miami Herald on Wednesday show that a DCF investigator last spoke with Sarah Spirit, 28, at 10:30 a.m. Sept. 4. Spirit insisted that the hotline call was a false report made maliciously by her mother-in-law, part of a "family feud." The grandmother's reports, Spirit said, were an attempt "to cause her problems."

The investigator, Sandra W. Hodge, "explained it was not a false report because (Spirit) admitted to using K2 a couple of weeks ago."

Before that, a long notation on or about Aug. 2 describes a visit by Hodge to Spirit's home. The children, she wrote, were "well groomed and dressed appropriately for school" as they exited a bus. "The children were happy to be home from school and were glad to see the mother," the note said.

That entry into DCF's computer system was not made until a day after the children were killed by their maternal grandfather, who fatally shot himself after also killing his daughter.

Killed were Alana Stewart, 2 months; Brandon Stewart, 4; Destiny Stewart, 5; Johnathan Kuhlmann, 8; Kylie Kuhlmann, 9, and Kaleb Kuhlmann, 11.

Also on Wednesday, DCF — which had been involved with the family since at least 2006 — released the findings of its internal review. DCF's conclusion: No one could have predicted Don Spirit's actions, but caseworkers did not address the chronic issues surrounding the family.

"I have been with the Department for 25 years, and I thought I had seen it all until this tragedy occurred. Don Spirit snapped, and it caught everyone in the community by surprise. No one ever thought he was capable of what he did," said DCF Secretary Mike Carroll. "The killing of six children is a heartbreaking tragedy beyond any comprehension. But even one child death means that our agency must review what we should have done — if anything — to better protect the children we work with."

Carroll said he will take immediate steps to increase accountability and management and require more training.

During the brief investigation into the September hotline report, Hodge noted that Spirit and her children were living with her father. "The grandfather denied any concern with the mother as a parent, or concerns for the children."

On Sept. 2, a guidance counselor for one of the children, Destiny, told Hodge she had paid Spirit's electrical bill "so the lights wouldn't get turned off."

"Ms. (Kathy) Weaver stated she has concerns for the mother and children."

The investigation showed that Spirit had recently been released from jail after violating probation. The crime: testing positive for illegal substances. At the time, she was living with her father, a 51-year-old man with a violent history who had fatally shot his 8-year-old son in a hunting accident.

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