Child advocates and children’s rights attorneys who fight to prevent child abuse and death of Florida’s at-risk children are concerned about the evolving case of Phoebe Jonchuck. During a court hearing, her father, Jon Jonchuck, had hoped his case would be “in God’s hands” but a court-appointed attorney now will help in the defense of the Florida man accused of throwing his 5-year-old daughter off a bridge to her death this month. If convicted, Jonchuck faces the death penalty.
Yet, even as the court case begins, the Florida Department of Children and Families has made several policy changes intended to change how state child welfare investigators respond to warnings of possible or impending child abuse or child neglect. The agency may also be called to answer how much it knew her to be at risk of harm, given it had previous interactions with the family.
Jonchuck reportedly had spoken to his attorney last week in advance of little Phoebe’s death. The attorney reportedly then called authorities to warn about the man’s strange behavior. When Hillsborough County Sheriff’s deputies arrived at his home, Jonchuck and Phoebe were acting normally, according to news reports.
Yet while all appeared normal, this wasn’t the first time DCF had visited Phoebe or the family, according to a release from the department.
“There have been prior child protective investigations involving this child conducted by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Child Protection Investigation Division, including a case commenced on Dec. 30, 2014,” according to a statement dated January 8 on DCF’s website. “DCF received a call to the Abuse Hotline at 2:45 p.m. yesterday [January 7] regarding the mental health of Phoebe’s father. It was reported that Phoebe was at home with her grandparents present.”
In response, Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll was to address the DCF’s Crisis Incident Rapid Response team’s investigation of the incident, and he ordered changes in how DCF officials, investigators and others react in such situations. Neither the secretary nor anyone from DCF has discussed the outcome of any previous involvement with the Jonchucks.
Such was the case of some 477 children who had died while known to be at risk by DCF officials.
“The department is immediately changing our Hotline criteria to include a trigger for when a caregiver is believed to be experiencing a psychotic episode that would require a CPI visit within 4 hours and a notification to law enforcement,” Secretary Carroll said last week. “We have to do more for the children, like Phoebe, who depend on us to protect them.”
Child advocates and those who fight for the rights of abused and at-risk children hope Phoebe’s death truly could not have been prevented, that neither police nor Department of Children and Families officials had no reason to suspect she was at risk of harm – at least from previous interactions between the agency and her father.