TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – A report released Monday by the Florida Department of Children and Families shows that child-protective officials missed several opportunities to help Phoebe Jonchuck’s troubled family or to intervene in the last days of her life.
In particular, the state abuse hotline did not act on two final calls on Dec. 29 and Jan. 7 — the last one coming less than a day before John Jonchuck was accused of dropping his 5-year-old daughter from a bridge into Tampa Bay.
Nor was the family referred for intervention services in 2013, when the hotline accepted a call about an earlier threat to Phoebe.
The report was the work of the Critical Incident Rapid Response Team, which Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll sent to Tampa to investigate after the girl drowned Jan. 8. The team was created last year as part of a sweeping child-welfare law that came after a series of child deaths.
As has been widely reported, the Jan. 7 call was made by John Jonchuck’s lawyer, who warned that Jonchuck was “driving all over town in his pajamas with Phoebe” and “seems depressed and delusional.” It was not investigated — and according to the report, “the counselor did not consult with a supervisor.”
Following the girl’s death, Carroll changed a hotline protocol to require an immediate response when a case involves a potential mental-health crisis.
The new report also revealed that on Dec. 29, a call “alleged past harm to Phoebe and current concerns regarding her living arrangements.” In addition, on Jan. 8, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office had an open child-welfare investigation related to the girl’s mother, Michelle Kerr, and allegations of family violence, inadequate supervision and substance abuse, the report said.
The Dec. 29 call wasn’t investigated. The hotline counselor who took that call “informed the caller that the report was being investigated, but then terminated the call before verifying the address that had been given for Mr. Jonchuck.”
According to the report, the hotline counselor didn’t then call back the person who had made the report, as DCF protocol requires, to say it hadn’t been accepted after all.
“The Florida Abuse Hotline is in the midst of a reorganization and alignment with Florida’s new child welfare practice model that will impact every part of its operation,” noted the report. “However, it does not currently have a consistent quality assurance process to evaluate screened-out reports or a training plan to build internal expertise regarding mental health, substance abuse and domestic violence.”
The hotline reorganization began last month, and Sen. Eleanor Sobel, chairwoman of the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, said she would examine the hotline issues during the upcoming legislative session.
She also pointed out that in 2012, the Legislature spent $20 million to revamp the hotline so that counselors could quickly research a family’s history and send data to child-protective investigators.
“What kind of training do these people have? Who are their supervisors?” Sobel, D-Hollywood, asked. “And how can we bring them up to speed so that they can size up a situation in a very short amount of time, given the information they’re given?”
Three of the hotline’s four supervisors and nine of its 220 counselors have been “reassigned to provide internal training and quality assurance,” according to the report.
Additionally, the report found that in 2013, the hotline accepted a call about the Jonchucks, warning that “family violence threatens (the) child” — but that the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office, which conducted the investigation, did not refer the family for services that could have reduced the risk to Phoebe.
“The investigation initiated on June 7, 2013 should have resulted in a referral for services,” the report found. “The belief that the separation of the parents had remediated the primary safety threats for the family significantly impacted the direction of the investigation, while insufficient examination or interpretation of family functioning or lack of follow-up contributed to the investigation being closed without services in place.”
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that did not take issue with this finding. However, sheriff’s spokeswoman Debbie Carter disputed another finding that “(t)he rate at which new cases are received and the number of ongoing staff vacancies” had a detrimental effect on the effectiveness of the child protective investigators.
“It is our opinion that the vacancies that we experience are challenging, but in no way had any impact on the Jonchuck case,” Carter wrote in an email. “The Sheriff’s Office has a standard for hiring and will not compromise our standards in order to fill vacancies.”
The News Service of Florida Margie Menzel contributed to this report.