Domestic violence death should have been prevented

Amid an uproar over the death of 5-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck, whose father is accused of dropping her from a bridge into Tampa Bay last month, questions are being raised about whether domestic-violence allegations should have alerted authorities to concerns about the girl’s safety.

Experts say a history of stalking, battery and domestic-violence arrests involving John Jonchuck should have disqualified him as Phoebe’s custodial parent.

“They never should have given the dad custody of this child,” said Linda Osmundson, executive director of Community Action Stops Abuse (CASA), a battered-women’s shelter in St. Petersburg. “It was a preventable death.”

“There is a very large correlation, an overlap, between woman abuse and child abuse,” said Robin Hassler Thompson, who served as director of former Gov. Lawton Chiles’ Domestic Violence Task Force. “The range in terms of the research is that between 30 and 70 percent of the cases where you have domestic violence, you have child abuse. And that is a huge red flag.”

A report released Monday on Phoebe’s death showed that John Jonchuck’s background includes a number of arrests for domestic violence, battery and stalking — in incidents involving Phoebe’s mother, his own mother and two other women. The report also pointed to allegations against Phoebe’s mother, Michelle Kerr.

“Viewing the combined collection of law enforcement, legal and child welfare-related events connected to this family reveals an established pattern of domestic violence,” the report said.

Rita Smith, former executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence who now works with the National Football League on spouse-abuse issues, said simply witnessing family violence can damage children’s health, social skills and academic performance.

“Children who witness domestic violence are more likely to repeat that pattern and become either an abuser or a victim,” Smith said. “There’s just too much history in this one case.”

The report also coupled Jonchuck’s alleged history of violence with “concerns regarding substance abuse and mental health issues that should have been viewed as indicators of maladaptive family functioning.”

In other words, the three biggest risk factors for child fatalities — domestic violence, mental illness and substance abuse — were all part of Phoebe’s story.

A fourth risk factor, the age of the child, applies to her as well. The youngest children are the most at risk, and Jonchuck was arrested for domestic violence the year Phoebe was born and four times more during her life.

The report was the work of the Critical Incident Rapid Response Team, which was created last year as part of a child-welfare reform bill and included an expert on the dynamics of domestic violence.

The pattern of arrests in the family shifted in June 2013, after Jonchuck was arrested for an altercation with Kerr, whereupon he and Phoebe moved out. About two weeks later, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office conducted a child-protective investigation, but did not refer either Jonchuck or Phoebe for services. According to the report, this was because Jonchuck and Kerr were no longer living together.

“This contributed to the situation being primarily viewed as rooted in the problematic relationship between the two adults, with the majority of safety concerns arising out of their altercations,” found the report. “There is also no documentation of (Jonchuck) being offered any kind of services despite the fact that the investigation was closed with a verified finding and he had become the sole primary caretaker since the event that primarily led to the finding.”

At that point, after repeated arrests for alleged battery and domestic violence, Jonchuck began trying to establish legal custody of Phoebe. In June 2013, he was granted a domestic-violence injunction against Kerr, prohibiting her from contacting him. In 2014, he filed for three more injunctions, two against Kerr and one against another woman. All three were denied.

“The appearance that subsequent reports were related as much to custody struggles as child welfare concerns contributed to future decision-making throughout the remainder of the case,” noted the report.

Hassler Thompson observed that women as well as men abuse their partners. But she also said that experts in the dynamics of domestic violence are familiar with the use of the courts to commit what some call “abuse by litigation.”

“We see quite often that abusers will use the system against the victim,” she said. “They flip it on its head. What you really need to do as a judge, as an advocate, is to look at these cases and make sure that the person who’s coming forward is the true victim — and that you have a complete list of all the incidences of domestic violence that have come to the attention of the system.”

Additionally, said Leisa Wiseman of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, having an expert on spouse abuse at the table is crucial to accurately assessing the threat to a child’s safety.

Wiseman pointed to her group’s collaboration with the Department of Children and Families, which pairs experts in child abuse with experts in spouse abuse.