After killings in Bell, reforms promised

Don Spirit
Don Spirit AP

Following the deadliest massacre in Florida child welfare history, the agency responsible for protecting children is promising a new set of reforms.

The Department of Children & Families acknowledged there were multiple warnings leading up to a grandfather in tiny Bell shooting his daughter and her six children before killing himself two weeks ago. The long-troubled agency announced immediate changes designed to improve the agency’s performance through better accountability, management and training — but concluded no one could have foreseen the actions of 51-year-old Don Spirit.

Killed were Alana Stewart, 2 months; Brandon Stewart, 4; Destiny Stewart, 5; Johnathan Kuhlmann, 8; Kylie Kuhlmann, 9, and Kaleb Kuhlmann, 11. Their mother Sarah Spirit, 28 also was fatally shot.

“The events that unfolded in Bell on Sept. 18, 2014, were an incredible tragedy that cuts to the heart of DCF’s mission,” Mike Carroll, the department secretary, said in a statement as part of a review of the Spirit family’s DCF history.

A study of eight years of DCF records reveals a family in chaos, with allegations ranging from drug-abuse to domestic violence to medical neglect and inadequate supervision. There were 18 separate reports since 2006. Local investigators and caseworkers, the report noted, did not connect the dots.

“The investigations conducted were incident-based and, as a result, did not sufficiently identify the chronic issues faced by this family and the array of services and interventions necessary to address the family’s needs,” the report said.

Among the changes: retraining of investigative staff in the Chiefland office, which handled the Spirit case, and mandating new training statewide for all child protective investigators and supervisors on fact-gathering before the start of an investigation. Additionally, all 1,600 abuse investigators and supervisors will receive more training in the agency’s Safety Methodology, a risk assessment tool developed recently.

The tragedy occurred in a tiny rural community of about 450 people, where everybody is known, a dynamic that might have been a factor in how the cases were addressed, the report said.

“This family was well known to staff, law enforcement, the school system and everybody who resided in this small community,” the report said. “This level of familiarity played a role in ongoing assessments of the family. Staff thought they knew and understood the dynamics and child-safety risks within this family and their view of the family appeared not to change over time. Staff essentially became conditioned to emerging factors that should have more fully informed their assessment.”

Related stories from Miami Herald