FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Just 12 hours before police say a man threw his 5-year-old daughter to her death off a Tampa Bay bridge last month, his own attorney called Florida’s child abuse hotline, warning that his client was suffering from mental delusions. But the hotline operator didn’t refer the call to investigators because she didn’t think the child was in danger, according to documents released by Florida child welfare officials Monday.
One week earlier, another worried caller told the Department of Children and Families that Jonchuck’s daughter Phoebe had been physically abused in the past. But that call also failed to get to DCF investigators because the operator hung up before she got John Jonchuck’s address. Instead of calling back, she simply closed the case, according to the state’s investigation.
The lapses have cast the already troubled DCF in a harsh spotlight, prompting new Secretary Mike Carroll to change hotline protocol. Going forward, if a caregiver seems to be experiencing a psychotic episode, a child protective investigator will be required to visit within four hours.
Police say Phoebe Jonchuck was likely alive when her father sped past a police officer on Jan. 8, stopped on the Sunshine Skyway bridge, pulled the girl from the back seat and dropped her to her death. He was arrested and accused of first-degree murder, but hasn’t formally been charged as he is undergoing mental health evaluations.
Jonchuck’s own divorce lawyer had warned authorities of his mental state on Jan. 7, telling the hotline operator that Jonchuck had driven to three different churches in his pajamas with Phoebe in tow and asked his attorney to translate a Bible in Swedish. Jonchuck was also expressing paranoid fears that Phoebe was not his biological daughter, his lawyer said.
“He’s calling the office every five minutes and saying these religious things and saying the child might not be his, it just really concerns me,” the unidentified attorney told an operator, later adding “It’s all craziness and it doesn’t make any sense and he’s out of his mind.”
But the report noted the relatively inexperienced operator said the caller seemed more worried about Jonchuck’s mental state, not the child’s safety and labeled the call as “inadequate supervision” and did not turn it over to investigators.
The attorney even noted that DCF had an open investigation on the family, but the operator said she couldn’t find the report and didn’t ask a supervisor, according to the state’s investigation. The missing report came from a caller who alleged family violence, inadequate supervision and substance misuse at the Jonchuck home.
“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,” Carroll said in the report.
Ignoring calls has been a problem in the past and the hotline has been undergone a multi-million dollar overhaul.
In 2011, the hotline received multiple calls worrying about the safety of Nubia Barahona, a 10-year-old former foster child whose partially decomposing body was later found doused in toxic chemicals in the back of her adoptive father’s pickup truck along a busy highway.
A hotline caller warned the Barahona twins were being tied by their hands and feet and locked in the bathroom for days, but DCF officials never contacted the police and the hotline operator didn’t flag the call as an emergency. The DCF investigator assigned to check on the children also didn’t have the family’s phone number.
Since then, DCF officials said they have collaborated with law enforcement to develop protocol for future emergencies.
Among the other problems uncovered in the investigation of Phoebe’s death, Hillsborough County Sheriff’s child protective investigators had 25 vacancies and were overwhelmed by the high number of new cases. And although the area has a network of nearby mental health, substance abuse and domestic violence resources, investigators don’t routinely seek expert advice before closing cases, using the organizations only for referrals.
Investigators also seemed more focused on whether Phoebe and her siblings’ basic needs were being met, instead of addressing the histories of domestic violence, mental health, and substance abuse issues in the home, according to the report. DCF investigators have struggled over the years to look at the big picture in several other high profile child abuse deaths.
A call in June of 2013 first brought child investigators to the Jonchuck home where they closed the case, agreeing that family violence threatened Phoebe. Jonchuck was arrested as a result of the call after an altercation with Phoebe’s mother. He and Phoebe later moved out of the home, but Monday’s report noted that no services or interventions were put in place.
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