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Florida Legislature to Review Lessons of Phoebe Jonchuck Death


The drowning death of Phoebe Jonchuck, who allegedly was thrown into Tampa Bay by her mentally ill father, caused Florida’s child advocates and attorneys who fight for abused children, as well as the Florida Department of Children and Families itself, to explore what went wrong. Now, legislators want answers, too.

Following her death on January 7, Florida DCF dispatched its Critical Incident Rapid Response Team (CIRRT) to investigate the incident. The report revealed that calls to the state’s child abuse hotline went ignored. Red flags across the board, including warnings reportedly from father John Jonchuck’s attorney and others who warned of his mental state, went unnoticed. Even a history of family incidents known to DCF officials didn’t set off alarms or trigger intervention by child protective services.

“The Jonchuck family struggled with (John Jonchuck’s) mental health issues … self-injurious behaviors and delinquency during his teen years, until he went to live with family friends at age 17 in 2006,” the CIRRT report said. “During his childhood, the family was reported to the department on four separate occasions, with all investigations resulting in no verified findings of maltreatments.”

Now, Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner has called for greater attention on mental-health issues in an effort to improve how Florida handles the convergence of child welfare and mental health. He wants to go beyond obvious signs – the calls, the flags, the warnings – and focus on the entire arc of the family and the system.

Sen. Rene Garcia, chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, is set to explore the situation. “[T]his is the time for us to delve into mental health and substance abuse,” Rep. Gayle Harrell, chairwoman of the House Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee, told the Tampa Bay Times.

The House has committed to review child welfare and criminal justice. The House Judiciary Committee held a workshop Wednesday on issues mental illness and the criminal-justice system.

The 2015 legislative session begins March 3. Among a host of pressing issues to be addressed will be how DCF and other organizations protect children known to be at risk. Last year, legislators enacted sweeping reforms to help bolster the child protective system to better prevent child abuse and other harms. After another lesson, this time delivered by a 5-year-old child, it’s time to revisit lapses again.

As Sen. Garcia admitted, “We can’t continue to do business as usual.”

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