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Romano: Phoebe Jonchuck's death requires big-picture solution, not just knee-jerk anger

A memorial has been set up atop the Dick Misener Bridge, St. Petersburg for the late  Phoebe Jonchuck, 5, who was thrown from the bridge by her father John Jonchuck Jr.. police say. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

A memorial has been set up atop the Dick Misener Bridge, St. Petersburg for the late Phoebe Jonchuck, 5, who was thrown from the bridge by her father John Jonchuck Jr.. police say. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Jan. 13, 2015

The short life and cruel death of Phoebe Jonchuck has touched us all.

It was so unnecessary, heinous and inconceivable that we're caught somewhere between anger and grief. All we know for sure is someone has to pay, and something has to change. That reaction is natural. Certainly cathartic.

But it cannot be the entirety of the conversation.

Because Phoebe Jonchuck was not the first child to die at the hands of a parent in this state. She was not the first to endure an unsettled childhood.

She was simply the latest.

If you have paid even minimal attention, you must know that a dozen or more children die due to abuse or neglect every month, on average, in Florida. And many of those deaths are considered preventable because the families were on the state's radar.

This is a problem that transcends political parties and state administrations. It existed 10 years ago, and 10 years before that.

What usually happens is a particularly egregious case like Phoebe's comes along and brings the issue back to the forefront. We demand that heads roll, and policies change.

And, a few months later, we begin to forget.

In some ways, that is an even greater tragedy than Phoebe's brutal end. For it ensures that another child, and then another and then another, will suffer similar fates.

It is easy, and satisfying, to point a finger and feel like the problem has been solved. In this case, the Department of Children and Families makes for an inviting and plausible target. The Jonchuck family was known to DCF workers and, in retrospect, there were red flags all over the place. Phoebe should have been rescued.

So, yes, the DCF is far from perfect. It may even be less than adequate. It has inherent flaws and probably has its fair share of incompetent employees. But to direct all of your ire at the DCF is to misunderstand what is really going on.

There is a big-picture quality to this problem that our leaders in Tallahassee need to recognize and embrace.

These tragedies will never be eradicated at the DCF level. Those people are working on the front lines. They are similar to medical professionals treating acute cases.

If we truly want to make a change, we have to provide help long before a child is in danger. In some cases, long before a child is born.

We have to do a better job funding mental health services. We have to do a better job funding substance abuse centers.

We have to do a better job recognizing that children who are raised in unstable environments understand no other way of life, and they grow up to create even more unstable families like so many ripples in a pool of water.

"We have to be certain that the children we do take in are provided safe, stable and nurturing relationships so we can prevent and change this generational cycle," said Christina Spudeas, executive director of Florida's Children First, a nonprofit advocate for at-risk children.

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"If they can be reunited with their families, we have to make sure they have the support they need. And if reunification is not possible, we need to make sure we provide them with a better life than they would have been facing at home."

This state has struggled for years with the question of whether it should lean more toward rescuing children from shaky homes or trying to keep families intact. The reality is that there should not be a policy one way or another. Every case has to be looked at individually. And every child's welfare has to supersede a bureaucratic goal.

We will never solve this problem in our lifetime. There will always be unfit parents. There will always be tragedies. But that doesn't mean we should throw our hands up in frustration, and it doesn't mean we should keep looking for someone to blame.

What we need to do is get in front of the problem as best we can.

And we need to start today.