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State's child welfare secretary pledges vigilance following Phoebe Jonchuck's death

John Jonchuck Jr. appears in court Monday for the second time since he was charged with first-degree murder in his daughter’s death. Pinellas County Judge Paul Levine set a Feb. 10 hearing to discuss Jonchuck’s mental health. DCF had taken a report on his erratic behavior before his daughter’s death but did not conduct a formal investigation.
John Jonchuck Jr. appears in court Monday for the second time since he was charged with first-degree murder in his daughter’s death. Pinellas County Judge Paul Levine set a Feb. 10 hearing to discuss Jonchuck’s mental health. DCF had taken a report on his erratic behavior before his daughter’s death but did not conduct a formal investigation.
Published Jan. 13, 2015

TAMPA — Days after a father was accused of tossing his 5-year-old daughter to her death from a bridge in St. Petersburg, the head of the state's child welfare agency vowed to do a better job investigating reports of parents exhibiting mental health issues.

Mike Carroll, secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families, said at a Monday news conference that a lot has been reported about what happened in the death of Phoebe Jonchuck.

"What we're trying to figure out is why it happened," he said.

Phoebe died early Thursday when her father, John Jonchuck Jr., dropped her off the side of the Dick Misener Bridge, according to police. St. Petersburg police Officer William Vickers, who had followed Jonchuck for speeding, saw him drop the girl. Her body was found a mile away. Jonchuck was arrested after a high-speed chase with police and sheriff's deputies.

Hours before the tragedy atop the bridge, attorney Genevieve Torres, who was going to represent Jonchuck in a paternity lawsuit, called 911 and the DCF abuse hotline to report his erratic behavior.

Hillsborough sheriff's deputies met with Jonchuck at a church in Tampa, and decided he was not a threat. DCF took a report, but did not follow up. The next day, Phoebe was dead.

"Based on the criteria, they decided it didn't rise to the level of a formal investigation," Carrol said Monday. "To me, my gut says we should investigate that every time."

The day after Phoebe's killing, Carroll announced that a child protective investigator will now be required to visit the family within four hours following a report that a parent may be experiencing a psychotic episode.

A Critical Incident Response Team is also looking into the Jonchuck family's prior interactions with child protective investigators, Carroll said. The team will issue a preliminary report of its findings within 30 days, after which Carroll said he will determine what more should be done.

"I'm concerned that someone was having an acute mental health issue and that we as a system didn't react to that quicker," Carroll said. "The buck will always stop with the Department of Children and Families if it's a child welfare case. We own child welfare. It's up to us."

Jonchuck appeared in court Monday for the second time since he was charged with first-degree murder. Pinellas County Judge Paul Levine appointed him a public defender. Jonchuck said nothing.

Levine set a Feb. 10 hearing to discuss Jonchuck's mental health, a key issue in how the case will proceed.

On Friday, during his first court appearance, Jonchuck told Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Michael Andrews he did not want a court-appointed attorney. "I want to leave it in the hands of God," he said.

As DCF's investigation into the agency's interactions with Jonchuck unfolds, Carroll said it is difficult to second-guess what took place due to the inherent complexities of child welfare investigations. In the Jonchuck case, Carroll said investigators were met with a challenge as multiple people came in contact with him the day before Phoebe's death. Each person seemed to have a different impression of his behavior.

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Carroll was appointed interim secretary of DCF last year by Gov. Rick Scott after a series of child deaths the previous year made for one of the worst periods in the agency's history. His appointment was made permanent in December. Carroll has said reducing the number of child fatalities is his top priority.

Times staff writer Curtis Krueger contributed to this report. Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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