After reading news accounts of the report issued this week by the Department of Children and Families in the case of Phoebe Jonchuck, the 5-year-old girl killed when her father allegedly tossed her into Tampa Bay, Florida child abuse attorneys and lawyers who represent at-risk children believe ample blame and areas of improvement exist as lessons from this episode. From operators at the Florida child abuse hotline (1-800-962-2873) to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department to DCF itself, the report highlights what went wrong – and where areas of improvement exist – so future cases like Phoebe’s don’t happen again.
Among the most important points, at least two calls to the state’s abuse hotline were not escalated for intervention. One came in December, the other on January 7, one day before Phoebe drowned in Tampa Bay.
The family was not recommended to receive intervention by family service advocates following a call in 2013 warning about abuse to Phoebe. When the Sheriff’s Office did intervene following a call, they reportedly failed to refer the family for intervention as well.
The report from the Rapid Response Team itself was a sign of improvement in the handling of such cases. The team was formed in 2014 after sweeping reforms to the Department of Children and Families following a spate of issues with the department, highlighted by Innocents Lost, a Miami Herald report on almost 500 Florida children killed while known by DCF to be at risk of harm.
Another reform instituted following Phoebe’s case: DCF Sec. Mike Carroll ordered that any reports of children at risk by a family member involving mental illness must be responded to by agency investigators within four hours.
All too often with cases like these, at-risk children have been placed in harm’s way for child abuse, physical abuse and even sexual abuse (though apparently not in the case of Phoebe), with state agency investigators slow to respond. Little by little, reforms are being made to improve the tools and practices to help these children.
Maybe one day, we’ll have a holistic solution in place that will effectively field calls from concerned citizens, dispatch child welfare investigators and police, make referrals for intervention, and ultimately protect these innocents from grave threats.
As the Rapid Response Team’s report proves, we’re not there yet. But hopefully, we’ll be there soon.