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DCF acknowledges failures in its handling of Phoebe Jonchuck case (w/video)

A collage of photos of Phoebe Jonchuck. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Feb. 10, 2015

TAMPA — Florida's child welfare agency acknowledged Monday that it failed to protect a 5-year-old girl before she was dropped to her death last month, missing opportunities to respond to concerns for her well-being.

A report issued by the Department of Children and Families concluded that child protection workers twice failed to follow up on calls to the state's abuse hotline in the days before Phoebe Jonchuck was dropped from a St. Petersburg bridge. The report also found that a prior domestic violence call involving Phoebe's parents should have prompted investigators to refer the family to child welfare services.

Despite the admitted missteps, DCF's report asserts that nothing could have foretold the events of Jan. 8, when John Jonchuck Jr. is alleged to have tossed his daughter from the Dick Misener Bridge. Phoebe was found dead hours later in the waters of Tampa Bay.

"Though there was a well-documented history of concerns related to this family, there was nothing in the preceding several years that could have reasonably been interpreted as predictive of such an event," the report read. At the same time, "it appears there were points at which further intervention or examination were warranted."

The 15-page report details the findings of a Critical Incident Rapid Response Team that examined all prior contacts DCF had with Phoebe's family.

The investigation centered on two calls to the Florida Abuse Hotline. The first, which came on Dec. 29, alleged past physical harm to Phoebe and concerns about her living arrangements. The call was taken by an experienced counselor, who took a report, but ended the call before verifying Jonchuck's address. The call was screened out of DCF's system because the counselor couldn't locate Jonchuck.

The next call came on Jan. 7, just hours before Phoebe's death. The caller told a hotline counselor that Jonchuck was driving around town in his pajamas and seemed depressed and delusional. A counselor determined there was insufficient criteria to accept the call and that Phoebe was not in danger. The call was screened out.

Earlier the same day, a lawyer called 911 after Jonchuck showed up at her Tampa law office with Phoebe. The lawyer told dispatchers that Jonchuck had made delusional statements and that she feared for his daughter's safety, according to reports. Hills­borough sheriff's deputies later caught up with him at a local Catholic church, where he was meeting with a priest. They questioned him and concluded that he did not require involuntary hospitalization.

Hours after the second hotline call, a St. Petersburg police officer spotted Jonchuck speeding toward the Misener Bridge and tried to pull him over. Authorities say Jonchuck stopped, dragged Phoebe out of the car, and dropped her over the side. He sped away as the officer searched the water.

Jonchuck was arrested later after a car chase. He remains jailed in Pinellas County on a first-degree murder charge. A court hearing to address his mental competency is scheduled for this morning.

In addition to criticisms of the handling of the two hotline calls, DCF's report noted problems with the way the agency responded to prior incidents between Jonchuck and Michelle Kerr, Phoebe's mother.

The couple split after a fight in June 2013. He obtained an injunction, barring Kerr from contact with Phoebe, and began to care for his daughter alone.

DCF made contact with Phoebe's parents then and reached "verified findings" that violence threatened children in the home, but did not refer the family to child welfare services. The report indicates this was based on the conclusion that the split between Kerr and Jonchuck "remediated" dangers in the home. But the review team found this was based on "insufficient examination" of family history and a lack of adequate follow-up.

"The fact that this situation was viewed through an incident-focused lens . . . led to inadequate action and a missed opportunity to potentially improve long term family safety," the report said.

After Phoebe's death, DCF changed its hotline protocol to mandate a quicker response in cases that involve mental health. DCF now requires personal contact with an investigator within four hours.

The report cited a number of other areas for improvement both within the agency and in the child protection division of the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, which conducts DCF investigations in the county. Among the criticisms was the number of staff vacancies and a high turnover rate for child protection trainees in the Sheriff's Office.

"It is our opinion that the vacancies that we experience are challenging, but in no way had any impact on the Jonchuck case," sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter wrote in response to the report. "The Sheriff's Office has a standard for hiring and will not compromise our standards in order to fill vacancies."

The report also noted the state abuse hotline has no consistent quality assurance process to evaluate screened-out calls. Nor is there a training plan for hotline workers to develop expertise in mental health, substance abuse and domestic violence. This is likely to change as the hotline undergoes a reorganization in the wake of Phoebe's death, the report noted.

"That any child's life would end as Phoebe's did — at the hands of her own parent — is terrible beyond words," the report stated. "And we are reminded yet again that every process within our system should be critically examined at every opportunity to ensure that the role it plays is carried out effectively."

Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.

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