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After Most Recent Child Death, Bipartisan Duo To Look Into Tweaks To DCF Law

Family of Phoebe Jonchuck's Facebook

As the Florida Legislature returns next week, a bipartisan duo of lawmakers could be looking at making some more changes on top of a new law overhauling Florida’s child welfare agency. It could include changes to the state’s abuse hotline, after the recent tragic death of a five-year-old girl whose father is accused of throwing her over a bridge.

“She was my world. I truly, truly loved her,” said a tearful Michele Jonchuck. “She was an angel. She loved school. She loved to crack jokes. She liked to be helpful to the other children at school.”

After the Wednesday funeral of Phoebe Jonchuck, Michele Jonchuck is remembering her granddaughter, who more than a week ago she saw alive and well.

That all changed when John Jonchuck, the girl’s father was seen by a St. Petersburg police officer throwing the five-year-old over a bridge one day, during what was supposed to be a routine traffic stop.

Jonchuck suffered from bipolar disorder. His criminal history included claims he used crystal meth TO allegations of domestic violence against the little girl’s mother and Michele, his own mother.

But, Michele says while she and her family and friends are struggling to come to terms with what happened, one fact remained: Phoebe loved her dad, and her dad loved her.

“I have to say the child loved her daddy, and her daddy was never mean to her, and I have people knew him well, day care people, everyone…never ever thought this would happen because he adored her,” Michele added.

On that fateful day, Jonchuck’s lawyer who represented him in his paternity case actually called the Florida Department of Children and Families’ abuse hotline, warning them that her client seemed delusional. The response to the call was first delayed, and later deemed inconsequential. And, hours later, Phoebe was found dead.

“You just can’t imagine these things happening,” said Gov. Rick Scott, weighing in on the tragedy following a recent Cabinet meeting. “I have grandchildren. The first thing you think about is the family, the impact it has on these families. My prayers go out to them. The Secretary Mike Carroll reviews each situation. He has a Rapid Response Team…he’s already made some changes. But, he’ll continue to look at every situation and make any additional situations he needs to make.”

Since Phoebe’s death, the main change that DCF Secretary Mike Carroll has made is making sure child protective investigators respond immediately to the residence if a call about the parent of the child’s mental state is in question.

But, Sen. Eleanor Sobel (D-Hollywood) says while that has merits, she’s not sure it’s enough.

“I think it can’t hurt,” said Sobel. “It can only help, and I like that the Secretary is trying to come up with responses, but you can have the longest checklist in the world and if you don’t have the right people in the right place answering the phone or advising people who are answering the phone, I think it’s a judgment call that often is lacking in many of those situations.”

And, the training of hotline employees and their supervisors is something the chair of the Florida Senate Children, Families, and Elder Affairs Committee wants to look into—given the recent situation.

“The intake operator actually did not know what to do with this case, and referred to her supervisor who said no, it does not rise to the occasion of taking the child away from the father. Yet, there was a tremendous history in the family that went back to drug abuse, violence on the mother, and I’m just wondering who the supervisor was and what kind of training she had,” added Sobel.

Over on the House side, Rep. Gayle Harrell (R-Stuart) says she’s glad for the change in the hotline’s procedures. And, she says before she “rushes to judgment,” she’s waiting until one of the newest changes from last year’s overhaul efforts is finished—a report from the Critical Incident Rapid Response Team to look into the extent of DCF’s involvement and what needs to change. That’s still weeks away.

“So, I really look forward to getting that report, and then we will absolutely analyze that and see what happened, and if there are further changes that need to be made, we’ll look at them,” said Harrell.

Still, the House Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee chair says one of her main priorities this year will be looking at mental health issues.

“And, I’m very much looking forward to the appointment of a new Deputy Secretary, which should be forthcoming relatively soon, and taking a look at our entire mental health system, and what we are doing in coordination of services specifically to make sure that parents who are experiencing mental health crisis, such as this, and obviously had previous mental health issues, that those are being addressed,” said Harrell.

Harrell and Sobel will get an update on the 2014 DCF Overhaul law Thursday, and see what tweaks need to be made.

Meanwhile, both say the mass shooting in Bell is also expected to come up at some point this session. In that case, a man killed his daughter and his six grandkids, before shooting himself. Weeks before the shooting, calls to the DCF hotline were made as well over substance abuse in the home.

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

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.