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The Legacy of Phoebe Jonchuck: More Reforms Needed to Improve Child Protections


When Mike Carroll, secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families, told panel committees from the Florida House and Senate in the wake of Phoebe Jonchuck’s death at the foot of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge earlier this month that a “sad irony” had also occurred, it highlighted a stark truth. Diligence is critical for those who pursue the care, health and well-being of Florida’s at-risk children.

Carroll had ordered changes to how DCF responds to calls to the Florida Child Abuse Hotline (1-800-962-2873). In the wake of Phoebe’s death, he immediately dispatched DCF’s Critical Incident Rapid Response Team. At the time of his Jan. 8 statements before the panel, he had not yet received the team’s response.

But it became apparent in the hearings that reforms often reveal the need for more change.

Previously, Carroll’s comments before the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee the morning of Phoebe’s death seemed to summarize a system making progress in in its child-welfare law dating back to 2014. Reforms strengthened DCF accountability and transparency, especially regarding the deaths of children under its watch. In fact, the Critical Incident Rapid Response Team was founded as part of those reforms.

When asked by Sen. Eleanor Sobel, the Hollywood Democrat who chairs the committee, about any reforms implemented in the aftermath of Phoebe’s death, Carroll noted that hotline procedures had changed to address issues of mental health and resulting threats. Following any such report, law enforcement would be contacted and DCF would require face-to-face contact within four hours.

Child advocates agree that reform measures take time to take root. While sweeping and laudable, the changes made in 2014 are just a step in the right direction. Additional reforms must be made, under the watchful eye of dedicated leaders and staunch child advocates, to ensure administrative policy, regulatory and legislative changes work toward achieving the best possible outcome – protection of Florida’s at-risk children.

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