More than a dozen children in Florida die each month from abuse or neglect and many of these children and their families are well known to state agencies like the Department of Children and Families. Yet the state of Florida continues to fail in protecting these children, even when their deaths could have been prevented.
The recent tragic deaths of Phoebe Jonchuck and Elizabeth Holder have brought into sharp relief the flaws in our state system. Lack of funding, incompetent and poorly trained employees, institutional lapses, and the failure of the state legislature to support institutions like DCF have combined to inadequately provide protection for children at risk.
Five-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck was thrown off the Sunshine Skyway Bridge by her father last month, and questions continue to linger on how the state of Florida failed her. Only hours before she was murdered, a lawyer representing John Jonchuck called 911 to report his erratic behavior and that she feared for the child’s safety. Father and child were tracked to a church, but a deputy for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office concluded that Jonchuck posed no threat. The Jonchuck family was known to DCF and had a history of domestic violence and drug abuse. Yet, in spite of case file going back almost three years and numerous red flags, DCF hadn’t intervened.
In 2013 Elizabeth Holder died eight days after being taken into involuntary custody by the Pinellas County Sherriff’s office. The cause of her death was an easily treatable case of tonsillitis that went undetected because the Sherriff’s office never performed a mandatory health screening. That cursory health screening is mandatory under Florida law and must be performed within 72 hours after a child is taken into custody. A subsequent inquiry revealed that sheriff’s Child Protection Investigation Division often ignored this law. In 2012, 884 children and198 did not receive medical screenings within the required 72-hour period.
I am representing Elizabeth Holder’s family in a federal lawsuit against Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. The Sherriff has acknowledged that his office violated the state requirement by not providing a medical screening. When I asked a doctor how simple it would have been to check Elizabeth for tonsillitis he told me “have her open her mouth and say ‘Ahhhhh.’”
Sadly, Phoebe Jonchuck and Elizabeth Holder are neither the first nor last children to die in Florida from neglect and abuse. The tragedy is that in both cases their deaths could have been prevented. These young girls died ultimately because the state of Florida failed them.
The legislature needs to act. Adequate funding needs to be provided to agencies like DCF, oversight of other public agencies charged with protecting children must be increased, and the state needs to re-evaluate how it protects children.