There is major backlash over the Department of Children and Families’ investigation into the murder of 5-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck. Some local leaders say the state should not be looking into their own failures and are calling for an independent review team.
“It’s not just about Phoebe, it’s about the entire system, and I feel they could’ve done a much better job of looking at that and really being honest and transparent,” says St. Petersburg councilman Steve Kornell.
Kornell is also a social worker. He’s pushing the council to pass a resolution that will call on DCF to mandate more training, and a master’s for child protection investigators. He also wants an independent team to review child deaths not DCF.
“When you have a 5-year-old thrown off a bridge, they have to say, ‘We take responsibility.’ If you’re really taking responsibility, you’re going back and say we’re not only going to change our telephone protocol you’re going back and looking at every case,” says Kornell.
During the monthlong investigation into Phoebe’s death, child protection investigators contracted through the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office blame being overworked and understaffed. Workers claim they juggle an average of 25 cases, and that the investigator assigned to Phoebe’s family in December had 27 cases at the time.
READ REPORT: DCF report on visit with Jonchuck
10 News uncovered DCF’s Scorecard for December that shows Hillsborough’s average caseload was 13 families, significantly lower than they claimed in the investigation.
Here’s DCF’s explanation of the discrepancy: “The Critical Incident Rapid Response Team conducted interviews with the HCSO Child Protective Investigation (CPI) unit. The information provided in the CIRRT report was relayed to the team during those interviews. The HCSO supervisory staff estimated that the CPIs were receiving between 5 and 7 new cases each week and carrying an average of 25 open investigations at any given time. The report produced is a result of the interviews conducted. The CPI scorecards provide high level snapshot of average investigations per CPI. It is point in time data. The number of active investigations is divided among all CPIs who have at least one assignment the day the report is run.”
Ashley Rhodes-Courter is a foster mom and knows the flaws and failures of the child protection system. “It’s so frustrating and so disheartening, because it seems like DCF is just looking for a scapegoat and all of these little technicalities to excuse the fact that children are being murdered,” says Rhodes-Courter.
FATHER’S ASSESSMENT:Jonchuck ruled mentally incompetent
A year ago, she’d been caring for 9-year-old Jenica Randazzo. The little girl was sent back to live with her family and murdered last week, deputies say, by her uncle.
“Both of these cases with Jenica and Phoebe you can see that somebody obviously messed up systemically, yet no one is taking real responsibility,” says Rhodes-Courter.
The person who is supposed to be held criminally responsible: Phoebe’s dad, John Jonchuck. A judge revealed Tuesday that two doctors assessing Phoebe’s dad found right now, he’s mentally incompetent to stand trial, yet he is the one who had custody of his little girl.
Dec. 29 call to DCF about Phoebe Jonchuck’s welfare.
In a monthlong investigation into Jonchuck’s death, the state acknowledges missed warning signs, failing to act on two calls to the abuse hotline, and fault local case workers for never providing services for the family.
“Let’s stop with the semantics here. We’re talking about kids who are dying on their watch that is completely unacceptable,” says Rhodes-Courter.
In a statement, DCF addressed the shortage of child protection investigators: “Last legislative session Governor Scott recommended and the Legislature funded an increase of $8 million to sheriff’s offices in six counties—Hillsborough, Pinellas, Manatee, Seminole, Pasco and Broward — who perform child protective investigations in order to fund additional resources they need to protect the children in their counties. DCF was provided additional funding to hire 270 new frontline staff, in order to reduce caseloads below the national recommendation from the Child Welfare League of America. The department has worked to quickly recruit more than 245 new Child Protective Investigators and Supervisors throughout the state with the goal of hiring individuals with social work degrees or other human-service related educations. As positions are filled, DCF is committed to increasing staff retention to ensure a stable and professional workforce.”