In Wake Of Bell Mass Shooting, Could Fla. Be Considering Another DCF Legislative Fix?

Sep 26, 2014

State child welfare officials are looking into what went wrong in their handling of an investigation of a Florida man who shot himself and his family in North Florida. The Florida Department of Children and Families say they were actually investigating the man weeks before the mass shooting in Bell. So, in the wake of the deadly rampage, could lawmakers be considering another DCF legislative fix?

About a week ago, Don Spirit shot his 28-year-old daughter Sarah and her six kids ranging in age from about three months old baby to 11-years-old.

After calling 911 and warning the operator he would commit suicide when Gilchrist County Sheriff’s deputies arrived on the scene, Don Spirit followed through and shot himself at his Bell home.

“Yes, ma’am,” said Spirit, heard in the recently released 911 call. “I just shot my daughter and shot all my grandkids, and I’ll be sitting on my step, and when you get here, I’m going to shoot myself.”

Gilchrist county sheriff Bobby Schultz talks with the media following the shooting deaths of 8 members of a family in Bell, Fla, Thursday, Sept., 18, 2014. Schultz said a man killed six of his grandchildren, his adult daughter and himself.
Credit Phil Sandlin / AP Photo

“First deputy on the scene made contact with the subject who alter committed suicide. Deputies searched the residence which revealed multiple victims with apparent gunshot wounds inside the residence,” confirmed Sheriff Robert Schultz, following the incident.

The day after the shooting, Governor Rick Scott visited the north Florida town. And, speaking to reporters following a Cabinet meeting Tuesday, he said he’s still in contact with authorities in Bell.

“I spoke to the Sheriff, the superintendent, and the principal yesterday to see if there’s anything they needed from the state,” said Scott. “Both the superintendent and the principal said there’s been a lot of grievance counselors that have come to the school because those children were going to an elementary school there and it happened after they came back from school that day.”

As details continue to unfold, it’s been discovered that two weeks before the shooting, someone had called the Florida Department of Children and Families’ child abuse hotline to complain that adults in the home were using drugs in front of the kids—a claim that state child welfare officials say they had been investigating.

In addition, officials say both Don Spirit and his daughter were the focus of several past abuse and neglect investigations.

Now, Governor Rick Scott says he has the agency looking into it.

Gov. Rick Scott (right) and Gilchrist County Sheriff Robert Schultz (left) talking to reporters in Bell, Fla. on Friday, Sept. 19, 2014 regarding the Thursday shooting.
Credit Phil Sandlin / AP Photo

“Right now, we ought to be praying for the family. We ought to be doing everything we can for all the survivors in the community. But, then do exactly what we’re doing and do a thorough investigation to understand what happened because we don’t want this to happen in our state again,” he added.

And, Stuart Republican Representative Gayle Harrell agrees. She was in charge of this year’s effort in the House to overhaul DCF, after a series of investigative Miami Herald reports outlined a number of child-abuse related deaths that occurred under the agency’s supervision.

The massive overhaul includes hiring more child protective investigators and putting together a child death’s website.  It also created a team to conduct an investigation following any child death to determine the root cause of the child abuse death and report their findings.

“A good example of the change that has happened is we have this Rapid Response Team out there doing the investigation, and so we should have within in the next week or so as to what exactly went on and what went wrong. It will help us make decisions and DCF make decision as to where to go from here,” said Harrell.

Still, she says moving forward, she expects there will be a lot hearings when the legislature next convenes, starting with committee hearings in January.

But, she says for now, she’s taking a wait-and-see approach as to what shakes out from the DCF probe, especially given the new law reforming the system just took effect months ago.

“And, if the new law is not going to address that, we need to learn about that and perhaps take further steps, but let’s see what shakes out of the investigation. And, also let’s see how the changes in the new law could have had an impact. I think they will have a significant impact, and it makes me even more determined as we go down this road of reform in changing this system and making sure the safety of the child is paramount,” she added.

In addition to DCF, local authorities are also conducting their own probe. That includes how Don Spirit had a gun with a felony record.

The elder Spirit had a troubled past, which includes serving time in prison for accidentally fatally shooting his eight-year-old son in the head during a hunting trip in 2001.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.