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After Recent High Profile Deaths, DCF Briefs Lawmakers On Strides Made

Florida Channel

The two high profile death incidents that occurred in recent months has already spurred a number of changes to Florida’s child welfare agency. That was part of an update two panels in the House and Senate received Thursday as part of a presentation looking at a new law overhauling the agency.

The most recent child death occurred weeks ago when John Jonchuck, who suffers from bipolar disorder, was accused of throwing his five-year-old daughter Phoebe over a St. Petersburg bridge. His lawyer had even called the Florida Department of Children and Families child abuse hotline hours before the tragedy, but the call was deemed inconsequential.

Speaking to the Senate Children, Families, and Elder Affairs Committee Thursday, DCF Secretary Mike Carroll said he listened to the call repeatedly to see where the hotline staff went wrong.

“I listened to the call personally a couple of times,” said Carroll. “In my gut, I said ‘for the life of me, I don’t understand why we screened this call out. But, to me in these situations, two things I think are equally important: we need to determine what happened, and even more important than what happened, I need to determine why it happened because knowing that the call was screened out is one thing; I need to understand the decision making process the folks involved in this went through so that I can fix it.”

Carroll says after speaking to hotline staff, it appeared there was some confusion in applying the criteria for which hotline operators accept calls to the hotline. And, he says that was changed.

Now, if the mental health of a person is in question, child protective investigators must start a face-to-face investigation within four hours of the hotline call. And, Carroll says that single change has already saved some lives.

“A young mum was in a home,” said Carroll. “She was seven months pregnant, and she indicated she had suicidal tendencies and thought her and her children would be better off dead. Using this new criteria, it was accepted. We did an immediate investigation, and that young mum was Baker-Acted yesterday and now her children are safe.”

Lawmakers also got briefed on some of the latest changes to the agency based on the comprehensive law, like hiring a new Assistant Secretary, the status of the Florida Institute for Child Welfare which focuses on social work, and updated reports from the Child Death Review Committee.

Lawmakers also heard updates from Jo Shonda Guerrier, the Director of Child Welfare Strategic Projects for the office of Child Welfare. She says since the implementation of the law, they’ve learned a lot. And, they’ve made further changes based on the shooting in Bell that left eight people dead.

In that case, Don Spirit killed his daughter and her six kids before turning the gun on himself. Weeks before the shooting, calls were made to the state abuse hotline over substance abuse in the home.

Guerrier says the way the Critical Incident Rapid Response Team deployed to look into a case has changed. CIRRT, an investigative team, is one of the new components of the 2014 law.

“One of the things we identified is we really need to recruit more people with specializations in domestic violence as well as substance abuse and mental health. So, we have actively reached out to some partners for them to participate in the next training in February. And, we have 56 individuals already registered to participate in that training.  One of the other things we learned is we reviewed 272 additional cases in which various actions were taken as a result from the things we were seeing from the Bell case,” said Guerrier.

Meanwhile, in the coming weeks, the CIRRT team is expected to report the full findings of what went wrong based in the case of Phoebe Jonchuck.

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.