Phoebe Jonchuck's mom filing suit against DCF

Posted at 1:31 PM, Jan 06, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-06 18:14:39-05

The mother of a 5-year-old girl thrown off a bridge to her death has retained an attorney and is now filing suit against the Department of Children and Families.

Phoebe Jonchuck was thrown on the Dick Meisner Bridge in Pinellas County in the early morning hours of January 8, 2015.  Deputies say her father, John Jonchuck Jr., is to blame.

An off-duty St. Pete police officer witnessed the tragedy and says Phoebe screamed as she fell 60 feet into the frigid Bay waters.

"Why?  Why that way?  Why any way?" Michell Kerr, Phoebe's mom, questioned.


In the hours following the tragedy, the ABC Action News I-Team would learn Jonchuck and Kerr, were both well known to law enforcement and to the Florida Department of Children and Families, which opened multiple cases involving them.

Phoebe's death came hours after Jonchuck's lawyer called 911 and the DCF hotline to report his strange behavior.
“He was delusional in his statements and in his behavior,” said Genevieve Torres, his lawyer.
A DCF report shows the case was opened at 2:45 p.m. then closed at 3:19 p.m. after the agency determined "it did not rise to the level of reasonable cause."
Torres said in an email to the I-Team, “The DCF report is missing a great deal of information I provided. It is very disappointing.”
“That was certainly a mistake, especially coming from a professional,” said Molly Gutcher, a former DCF attorney who now practices family law. “I would guess there aren't many attorneys who make reports about their clients.”
The I-Team learned Jonchuck and Kerr were involved in five domestic violence cases and three other DCF cases dating back to 2012.
In Hillsborough County, DCF contracts with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Child Protection Investigation Division to conduct child protective investigations.
A case was opened in April 2012 involving an allegation that the father choked the mother.
During that investigation, the couple’s landlord was interviewed.
He said he suspected Phoebe was being neglected due to the fact that "drug paraphernalia was left [on] the front porch" and  "feces were coming out of her diaper" when he observed the little girl sitting in a high chair.
Those claims were documented as unfounded.
The next year, investigators looked into allegations that the mother, Kerr, had a history of using methamphetamine and cocaine.
The complaint alleged she was emotional, hostile and fell down when she was under the influence.
The complaint also alleged that Kerr cut Jonchuck with a box cutter and failed to bathe Phoebe for three weeks.
The case was closed with no indicators of substance misuse.
The report indicates Kerr would not provide a drug screen sample when interviewed.
On Dec. 29, 2014, DCF was contacted amid an allegation that Jonchuck was trying to keep Phoebe from her mother, did not have a stable home and moved from relative’s to relative’s home.
DCF determined that the complaint did not rise to the level of reasonable cause to suspect abuse.
None of the four DCF cases involved the same county investigators.
“When you first meet someone, you're starting all over. So I do believe there should be a consistent caseworker,” said Gina Midyett, a licensed therapist who worked for years as a case manager for a DCF agency.
She said she was required to visit her clients on a weekly basis and constantly monitored their home situations.
“I would go into these homes and the first thing I would look for is what kind of environment does this child live in? Are there drugs, is there, alcohol abuse, mental illness? That's a huge one,” Midyett said.
Despite documentation about Jonchuck's mental illness on police reports, it wasn't mentioned in any of the DCF reports.
“Perhaps they weren't even aware of his mental health issues,” said Gutcher, who believes it’s something DCF should have known. 
Seven other DCF cases involve the mother, father or other family members, but they have not been released to the media, since they don't directly apply to a child fatality.
DCF immediately sent a team to Tampa to review the details of its involvement with the family of Phoebe Jonchuck.

The agency announced an immediate change to its hotline criteria to trigger a child protective investigator visit within four hours and notification of law enforcement if a caregiver is believed to be having a psychotic episode.

DCF Secretary Mike Carroll released the following statement announcing the decision:

“The horrible nature of this little girl’s murder at the hands of her father is heart wrenching and demands our most immediate and thorough response. The multidisciplinary review team will be on the ground in Tampa tomorrow working with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Child Protection Investigation Division to review all the details of the involvement with this family. We must do everything we can at DCF to prevent any and all harm to precious children like Phoebe."

"After the tragic loss of Phoebe, 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 four hours and a notification to law enforcement. We have to do more for the children, like Phoebe, who depend on us to protect them."


Kerr and Jonchuck did not have a formal custody agreement.  Instead, they decided Phoebe would live with Jonchuck because Kerr suffers from multiple sclerosis and was unable to properly care for Phoebe.

She says she was aware Jonchuck had mental issues but never believed he would ever hurt the little girl. 

While she has not spoken to Jonchuck, she told ABC Action News she doesn't hate him.

"Would Phoebe want me to hate her dad?  I don't think she would," Kerr said.

Kerr feels DCF still shoulders the bulk of the blame for her daughter's death.

"They just shun a call even from a lawyer, that's a little disturbing," Kerr said.

She also claims DCF focused on false allegations Jonchuck made against her, including suggestions she was working as a prostitute.

"John has put in false allegations and was notorious for doing so to do the DCF hotline, that I should be drug tested, that I am prostituting around when I was doing nothing more than taking care of my son.  I passed every random drug test that DCF has ever randomly given me and still til this day while they are still in my face," she claimed.

Kerr pointed to other recent cases DCF was involved with where children died and they admitted fault, including 11-year-old Janiya Thomas.    Her body was found inside a Bradenton freezer.

"When is it going to stop? They are obviously still not, something is not right there in that system," Kerr said.

She also fears more deaths are coming.

"This isn't the first time. How many times is it going to take?" Kerr questioned.


Kerr is now represented by Adam Brum, an attorney with Morgan & Morgan.

In a phone interview with ABC Action News on Wednesday, Brum explained that DCF has been notified they are collecting documents and intend to file a lawsuit in the near future.

According to Brum, they will first try to settle out of court.  If DCF fails to do so, then the lawsuit will proceed.

The Jonchuck matter is jaw dropping," said Brum.


A judge ruled Jonchuck incompetent to stand trial.

He is currently at Florida State Hospital receiving counseling.  The Pinellas County State Attorney's Office says he is also being medicated.

Jonchuck is due back in court February 23.