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Call to DCF about Phoebe Jonchuck gave warning signs a week before her death

Florida's child welfare chief told lawmakers on Wednesday that a state abuse hotline received not one but two calls about potential danger to 5-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck - the first a week before her death in the waters of Tampa Bay. [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]
Published Feb. 9, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's child welfare chief told lawmakers on Wednesday that a state abuse hotline received not one but two calls about potential danger to 5-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck — the first a week before her death in the waters of Tampa Bay.

Details of one call about the actions of John Jonchuck, Phoebe's father, had already been known. But Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll said an upcoming report will also show that the hotline did not act on the earlier call. John Jonchuck was charged with dropping his daughter off a bridge last month.

"In hindsight, looking at those calls, we probably should have accepted them both, and we should have initiated an investigation on (Jonchuck)," Carroll told the House Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee. "The report will find that."

Carroll sent what is known as a Critical Incident Rapid Response Team to Tampa. The teams were created last year when, after a wave of child deaths, the Legislature passed a sweeping reform law aimed at strengthening accountability at the DCF. Legally, the report of the team investigating Phoebe's death is due within 30 days — and Carroll told the committee it would be ready by Monday at latest.

He also said the report would reflect poorly on his agency, which had compiled an extensive file on the Jonchuck family before the tragedy.

"It does appear that we had issues with our assessment of that case, and (the) dad was allowed custody of that child, and there were really no services put in place for that child," Carroll said.

The context for the secretary's remarks was a discussion of transparency in reviewing child deaths after months of controversy regarding the state's procedure for conducting reviews under the new law.

Subcommittee Chairwoman Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, has predicted further legislation regarding the death reviews in the upcoming session. And she vowed Wednesday to shine a "beam of transparency" on the death-review process.

"The fact that Florida has such a high number of child deaths is absolutely appalling to me and to every member of this committee and to the Florida Legislature," Harrell said. "We are doing everything we can to prevent child deaths. . . . We want transparency in our system."

The state abuse hotline screened out a call from John Jonchuck's lawyer the day before Jonchuck is alleged to have dropped his daughter from the Dick Misener Bridge just north of the Sunshine Skyway bridge. On Jan. 7, the lawyer called to warn that Jonchuck was "driving all over town in his pajamas with Phoebe" and "seems depressed and delusional." For whatever reason, the message was not deemed urgent.

In the shock that followed the girl's death, Carroll changed a hotline protocol to require an immediate response when a case involves a potential mental health crisis. That response would include a report to law enforcement and face-to-face contact within four hours.

But the existence of an earlier call, made with days to spare before Jonchuck's drive to the bridge, promises to roil the case anew.

The report of the incident response team is expected to examine the case in every respect. The team is composed of experts in a variety of fields, including law enforcement, substance abuse, mental health and domestic violence — all of which appear to be relevant to Phoebe's death.

John Jonchuck had a lengthy arrest record, including multiple arrests for domestic violence, stalking and battery on Michelle Kerr, Phoebe's mother, and one for battery on his mother, Michele Jonchuck. He was also arrested for driving under the influence in 2013. Additionally, DCF records show that in 2012, child-protective investigators examined charges that Jonchuck had choked Kerr, struck Phoebe and used crystal meth.

"(Jonchuck) has a criminal history that includes charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, larceny and multiple domestic-violence charges," the investigator's report noted. "The mother indicated on the last report that there had been domestic violence between her and the father."

But the investigation concluded that "the updated risk assessment for signs of present danger is low."

Carroll told the House panel that the factors troubling Phoebe's family were endemic to the child-protection system.

"These issues go back generationally," he said. "What we need to do is move our battle upstream. We need to do a better job at dealing with young folks who have substance-abuse and mental-health issues even before they become parents. Because a young man who has a substance abuse issue, I'll guarantee you, is going to become a parent. And then he's going to have a young baby in his care. And that baby is at the highest risk."

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