The many signs before the slaughter of a Florida family

Mourners are reflected in a framed collage of images featuring Sarah Spirit and her children during a candlelight vigil at Bell Elementary for the victims of Thursday's shootings on Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014 in Bell, Fla.
Mourners are reflected in a framed collage of images featuring Sarah Spirit and her children during a candlelight vigil at Bell Elementary for the victims of Thursday's shootings on Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014 in Bell, Fla. AP

The calls to Florida’s abuse hotline about the peculiar parenting methods of Sarah Lorraine Spirit began in 2008, and continued unabated until Spirit’s entire family was slaughtered Sept. 18. The 18 investigations included virtually every type of abuse or neglect in the agency’s handbook: beatings, burnings, medical neglect, poor supervision, drug abuse, abandonment and domestic battery among them.

The details were, at times, outlandish: Spirit treated a deep cut on her son’s foot with bleach, then wrapped the wound in tissue and duct tape. She ignored repeated pleas from a school nurse to take him to a doctor. The children frequently missed school owing to relentless head lice. One little girl nearly lost her teeth to rot.

The children stole food because they were hungry. Spirit insisted the family had steak for dinner. Her children said they ate cereal and Ramen noodles while the adults dined on the meat. Spirit’s father, Don Spirit, beat the children with a belt for jumping on a couch.

The Department of Children & Families offered Spirit services to improve her parenting. Mostly, she refused, though once, in 2013, Spirit agreed to accept help, only to be dropped from the program as “unsuccessful.” The agency took her children from her around 2007, then gave them back.

Caseworkers with a private child welfare agency threatened to take legal action against her if she continued to harm her children, but the threat proved hollow, and several more abuse reports followed.

DCF Secretary Mike Carroll released a detailed post mortem on the killings Wednesday — the first report written by the agency’s new Critical Incident Rapid Response Team, created earlier this year by the Florida Legislature. DCF also released hundreds of pages of detailed records on the family to the Miami Herald in response to a public records request. The records trace the family’s history with the state since 2006.

In Wednesday’s report, DCF administrators insisted there was nothing in its eight-year history with the Spirit family that could have predicted the mayhem that ensued last month.

Killed were Alana Stewart, 2 months; Brandon Stewart, 4; Destiny Stewart, 5; Johnathan Kuhlmann, 8; Kylie Kuhlmann, 9, and Kaleb Kuhlmann, 11. Grandfather Don Spirit also killed his daughter, age 28, before fatally shooting himself.

“The events that unfolded in Bell,” the report said, “were an incredible tragedy that cuts to the heart of DCF’s mission. The senseless murder of these innocent children and their mother is an extreme outlier. There is no evidence to suggest that anyone, at any time, could have known that Don Spirit was capable of the premeditated and intentional massacre of his six grandchildren, his daughter and then himself.”

The report added: “There will never be one child who dies without DCF working to determine what changes can be made or processes improved to prevent further tragedy.”

Many of the agency’s investigations, the report said, viewed each incident in a vacuum, failing to encompass the family’s long and difficult history. It is a theme that DCF’s secretary, Carroll, has acknowledged in recent months, saying the agency often views only a “snapshot,” rather than the “motion picture.”

The rampage sent shock waves through the tiny town of Bell, in Gilchrist County. And it has reignited concerns about Florida’s chronically troubled child welfare system, which was at the center of withering criticism and a legislative overhaul bill earlier this year.

The detailed records suggest DCF’s frequent contacts with the Spirit family often left the small children no better off than before the investigations began. Missteps documented in the history are characteristic of the oft-repeated mistakes that prompted lawmakers to reform the agency: Investigators closed their cases on nothing but Spirit’s promise to do better. They repeatedly allowed her to refuse services or supervision that might have protected her children from future harm.

And they viewed Don Spirit, the grandfather, as a “support” despite his own violent history against both his daughter and the children.

One turning point occurred last year when agency administrators met for a “staffing” to decide whether to remove Spirit’s children or to force her to accept supervision and help from the state. “It was determined there was no reason to seek judicial intervention for compulsory services or, ultimately removal from the mother’s care,” Wednesday’s report said. The children, the report said, “were not in imminent danger.”

The penultimate call to the agency’s hotline was received at 8:26 p.m. on Sept. 1. Spirit and her boyfriend were both smoking marijuana and a synthetic form of the drug “around the kids,” the report said, and Spirit had been arrested for drug possession weeks earlier. “The adults’ eyes are always half-closed,” a report said, because of the drug abuse. The next day, a school guidance counselor for one of the children said she had paid Spirit’s electrical bill “so the lights wouldn’t get turned off.”

Records released to the Herald show a DCF investigator spoke with Sarah Spirit on Sept. 4 at 10:30 a.m. Spirit insisted that the hotline call was a false report made maliciously by her boyfriend’s mother, part of a “family feud.” The grandmother’s reports, Spirit said, were an attempt “to cause her problems.”

The investigator, Sandra W. Hodge, “explained it was not a false report because [Spirit] admitted to using K2 a couple week ago.”

Before that, a long notation by Hodge, on or about Aug. 2, describes a visit by Hodge to Spirit’s home. The children, she wrote, were “well-groomed and dressed appropriately for school” as they exited a bus. “The children were happy to be home from school and were glad to see the mother,” the note said.

But that entry in DCF’s computer system, like others in the report, was not made until a day after the children were killed.

The probe had languished for two weeks when a new report was received, one with rare finality: “Today, the grandfather shot the six children and killed the mother. Then, the grandfather called 911. When police arrived the grandfather killed himself. The reason the grandfather did this is unknown.”

DCF’s history with the Spirit family appears to have begun in 2006, with hotline reports in February and August. In the latter report, DCF was told the family was facing eviction and had no food. One of the boys had a broken leg in a cast. His mother claimed he had fallen off a trampoline, but investigators questioned why a little boy would have been allowed on the trampoline. DCF ruled there were “no signs of abuse or neglect,” though one child had a bite mark and yellow bruises. In September of that year, one of the kids was found wandering the neighborhood with a steak knife.

A March 2007 report said: “Mom uses crack cocaine,” adding: “Mom leaves the children in drug houses.”

The children’s paternal grandmother told an investigator that one of the boys was so hungry he “hoarded food.” “Kids should not go through this,” the grandmother said, threatening to call “the media” if DCF refused to act.

The next year, 2008, DCF was told that 9-year-old Kylie had witnessed her grandfather — who stood at 6-2 and weighed 280 pounds — pushing her mom into a refrigerator and beating her about the face. DCF praised Spirit for acting to “protect herself and her children.” Spirit, a report said, “grew up in a home with domestic violence between her parents.”

“Sarah has a history of chaotic lifestyle and poor decision-making,” the report said. But, it added, “The children do not appear to be at risk.”

In 2010, DCF was told preteen Kaleb had suffered a “cigarette lighter burn on his neck.”

Several hotline calls arrived in 2012: In January, the agency was told Kylie had to repeat kindergarten twice because of “chronic head lice.” In February, the agency was told, Spirit soaked 11-year-old Kaleb’s foot in bleach, and wrapped it in tissue and duct tape after he gashed it on shards of glass. The boy never received medical care until 12 days later, when a school resource officer, at a school nurse’s urging, took the boy to a doctor. “Needs are being seen to with the help of others,” a DCF report concluded.

A report in May 2013 said Don Spirit had beaten 8-year-old Kylie with a belt, leaving bruises inside her knees, and that Sarah Spirit’s boyfriend at the time would “wreck” her house when he couldn’t find the couple’s synthetic marijuana. “Mom and dad are drug addicts,” the report said. Another report two months later said Spirit had flunked a better-parenting program, and that 5-year-old Destiny’s teeth were rotting for lack of dental care.

Three more reports arrived this year. In February, 5-year-old Destiny arrived at school with a serious burn, resulting in the first call. “The burn would’ve been much better if it was treated last night,” the agency was told. When interviewed by an investigator, Destiny disclosed, under prodding from a counselor, that her mother had paddled her feet, bruising them, because she wouldn’t go to bed.

“The children function with great difficulty. It is believed that they have a rough time at the home,” the report said.

In July, DCF was told Spirit “left the six kids unattended” at home so she could get high. “The mother uses K2 drug on a daily basis and [got] high for years. She does not pay attention to the kids.”

When the report was closed on Aug. 28, investigator Shelly McDaris concluded the allegations were the result of a false report made by a family member because of an altercation. Children’s needs are being met,” she added.

The next report was phoned in three days later. It was still open when the family was wiped out.

Staff writer Julie Brown contributed to this report.

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