Any child advocate or child abuse attorney who fights to protect children from child abuse or other harm knows the confluence of domestic violence, substance abuse and mental illness create a toxic cocktail that can place children in harm’s way. Little Phoebe Jonchuck, 5, reportedly was surrounded by all three. She no doubt knew the horrors. Problem is, those who are paid to protect children like Phoebe missed the signs.
Word that John Jonchuck, the father who allegedly threw his daughter off a bridge into Tampa Bay in January, reportedly had been cited for alleged domestic violence, battery and stalking raises yet another red flag in the case of Phoebe.
Sadly, though his history was known, it didn’t sound alarms among officials at the Florida Department of Children and Families or those who granted Jonchuck custody of his daughter. One child advocate called hers “a preventable death.”
The same can be said of the family of Donald Spirit, the North Florida grandfather who shot his daughter and his six grandchildren. The Florida Child Abuse Hotline (1-800-962-2873) had been called two weeks before the 2014 mass shooting about alleged drug use in the family home.
To be sure, Phoebe was raised in a troubled household. Reports of drugs use and violence are in the news, as are allegations of mental health issues.
Then, the DCF Critical Incident Rapid Response Team’s report noted how John Jonchuck had amassed a list of arrests for domestic violence. Meanwhile, child welfare agencies and law enforcement failed to act.
The flags were there, only officials were color blind. In the past year, we’ve seen the Florida Legislature act to put in place the tools to help Florida DCF officials better protect at-risk kids from abuse, injury and harm. The Rapid Response Team – and its report delivered in the required 30 days – are examples of strategies that can help us all learn what went wrong.
Now, we just have to spot the flags before they lead to situations that require the Rapid Response Team being dispatched to the scene of yet another violent episode.