Report: Florida child-abuse hotline erred in dismissing call about girl who was thrown off bridge

Photos of Phoebe Jonchuck, who was killed when her father threw her off a bridge in Tampa.
Photos of Phoebe Jonchuck, who was killed when her father threw her off a bridge in Tampa.

On the morning of Jan. 7, John Jonchuck arrived at his lawyer’s office in his pajamas, his curly haired daughter in tow. He’d been driving around Tampa clutching a tattered Bible which he insisted was written in Swedish. He’d spent the morning searching for God at one church after another.

His lawyer’s office told the state’s child-abuse hotline that Jonchuck was “delusional,” and that his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe, was in danger.

“I’m worried he’s out of his mind,” the caller said. “I wanted to be sure I called somebody. If something happens to that child, I’d called somebody.”

But instead of mounting an investigation to determine whether Phoebe was safe, the hotline counselor suggested Jonchuck’s lawyer call the Department of Education to ensure she wasn’t truant.

Hours later, Phoebe was dead. Her father, police say, flung her from a bridge that approaches the iconic Sunshine Skyway connecting St. Petersburg with Manatee County to the south.

Counselors at Florida’s child-abuse hotline erred by dismissing the call, and another one that was received about a week earlier, a Department of Children & Families report released Monday concluded. A year earlier, caseworkers had erred by failing to offer the youngster’s father services that may have left her safer.

Still, a team of investigators that reviewed Phoebe’s death concluded the agency could not have foreseen the tragedy that unfolded Jan. 8 near the Skyway bridge, nor prevented it.

“Though there was a well-documented history of concerns related to this family, there was nothing in the preceding several years that could have reasonably been interpreted as predictive of such an event,” a DCF Critical Incident Rapid Response Team reported. The team had been dispatched to Pinellas County after Phoebe’s killing caused a firestorm in Tampa Bay, even as child welfare administrators have been trying to regain the state’s confidence.

“That any child’s life would end as Phoebe’s did — at the hands of her own parent — is terrible beyond words,” the report said. “And we are reminded yet again that every process within our system should be critically examined at every opportunity to ensure that the role it plays is carried out effectively. Our commitment to the ongoing strengthening of our overall practice model and its individual components will continue as we work to fulfill our mission.”

By year’s end, Phoebe already had been the subject of six calls to DCF’s hotline, records show. The last two calls — received Dec. 29, 2014, and Jan. 7 of this year — were “screened out” by workers at the state’s hotline, meaning the allegations never were dispatched to investigators for action, the report said.

The Dec. 29 call “alleged past physical harm to Phoebe and current concerns regarding her living arrangements,” the report said. The hotline counselor “accepted” the report for investigation, but somehow “terminated” the call without verifying an address for Jonchuck. The worker was later unable to determine where Phoebe was living, and then discarded the case as lacking agency jurisdiction. Both the failure to obtain an address, and then screening the call because of that, were mistakes, the report said.

The hotline call the next month was not handled well either, the report said. The call was made by a law firm that represented Jonchuck in a bitter custody dispute. The caller said Jonchuck was “completely delusional” and driving around with Phoebe in his car. Jonchuck had arrived at his lawyer’s office with an “ancient Bible” insisting it was written in Swedish and asked an office worker to read it to him. Jonchuck had insisted the office worker was “the creator” or God.

The firm had attempted to have Jonchuck involuntarily committed, but officers dispatched to evaluate his competence determined he did not meet criteria for an involuntary examination under the state’s Baker Act, and left him at a nearby church. “He showed up in his pajamas,” the caller told the hotline. “He’s been driving all around town.

“He’s going back and forth thinking the child is not his,” the caller said. “It’s all crazy. It does not make any sense, and he’s out of his mind.”

“I’m worried about the child,” the caller said, adding Phoebe “didn’t want to leave the office.”

Like the police, DCF’s hotline counselor concluded that Jonchuck’s behavior did not meet the criteria for a DCF abuse or neglect investigation. So that call was screened out, as well.

“Based on the information you’ve provided, unfortunately it doesn’t rise to the level of Florida statutes for us to be able to accept this report at this time,” the counselor said. She, instead, recommended that the caller speak to educators to make sure Phoebe was attending school.

Monday’s report attributes the dismissal of the Jan. 7 call to a “lack of clarity” in agency procedures concerning the significance of mental illness on the safety of children. The confusion “regarding the impact of mental health issues on a parent's ability to provide adequate supervision contributed strongly to the counselor reaching the conclusion that Phoebe was not in danger.”

On June 7, 2013, DCF had received a hotline report that Phoebe was at risk due to ongoing domestic violence between Jonchuck and Phoebe’s mother, Michelle Kerr.

The report claimed that Kerr had abused methamphetamine, cocaine and alcohol, had been “hostile” and had fallen down when drunk. The mother, the report said, was violent with Jonchuck, and had attacked him with a box cutter. “There is a problem with Phoebe not being bathed,” the report said, adding: “There are some concerns regarding the mother having adequate food in the home.”

That investigation occurred about two weeks after Jonchuck had been arrested for battery. In its report Monday, the Rapid Response Team said the 2013 investigation should not have been concluded without first ensuring Jonchuck was receiving services from the state to improve his parenting skills, such as domestic violence counseling, or mental health treatment.

The team’s review of that investigation concluded it appeared to “have resulted in several conclusions that are not supported by the documented facts.”

“This investigation,” the report said, “should not have been closed without services being offered to Mr. Jonchuck Jr. and Phoebe.”

The team documented several other challenges as well, including chronic understaffing at the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office’s child protection program, which had investigated the family under contract with DCF. As of this month, the sheriff’s office unit had 25 vacancies, “and supervisory staff indicated that this was representative of what the vacancy rate has been for some time,” the report said.

Investigators will be “significantly impeded ... as long as they continue to be overwhelmed and understaffed,” the report said.

“Phoebe’s heart-breaking death points to some of the most challenging issues we struggle with in child welfare — mental health, substance abuse and domestic violence,” DCF Secretary Mike Carroll wrote of Phoebe’s death in a prepared statement. “The events on the day of Phoebe’s death evolved quickly, and in response we immediately put new protocols in place at the Abuse Hotline to ensure we are equipped and prepared to respond more quickly and effectively.

“Even one child death is too many, and I will not tolerate anything less than 100 percent for the children we are charged with protecting.”

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