Les Neuhaus – Page 6 – Florida Politics

Les Neuhaus

Les Neuhaus is an all-platform journalist, with specialties in print reporting and writing. In addition to Florida Politics, he freelances as a general-assignment and breaking-news reporter for most of the major national daily newspapers, along with a host of digital media, and a human rights group. A former foreign correspondent across Africa and Asia, including the Middle East, Les covered a multitude of high-profile events in chronically-unstable nations. He’s a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, in which he served as a Security Policeman, and graduated from the University of Tennessee with a B.A. in political science. He is a proud father to his daughter and enjoys spending time with his family.

Appropriations Committee approves bill removing police ‘discretion tool’ in first-time cases with juveniles

A bill introduced and passed unanimously in the Appropriations Committee on Criminal and Civil Justice Wednesday would take away a tool long since considered useful, but increasingly controversial – the power of discretion.

The measure – SB 196 — could drastically limit what those in the policing community could do when responding to calls involving minors, detractors at the meeting — which included representatives from the law enforcement associations — argued, as the bill’s sponsor, Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores looked on.

“We cannot agree to a bill that takes away from law enforcement discretion,” Matt Dunagan, executive director of the Florida Sheriff’s Association, said. “The sheriff’s do support diversion programs, but if an (ordinance or law) has been broken, a citation must be issued.”

Shane Bennet, head of the Florida Police Chiefs Association, echoed Dunagan’s concerns, also adding his organization supported the civil citations program, which helps offenders who are still minors avoid criminal charges.

The bill also would create diversion programs for first-time offenders, avoiding a criminal record, which could prevent them from joining the military or qualifying for a range of jobs.

“When young people commit serious crimes, there needs to be an appropriate legal penalty. However, there are many situations where youth are displaying a lack of judgment and maturity, rather than serious criminal behavior,” said President Pro Tempore Flores. “This legislation ensures that we utilize other avenues that correct inappropriate behavior without stigmatizing our youth with a criminal record that could impact their future education and career opportunities.”

More than 9,000 minors were arrested in Florida in 2016. Disparities between counties can confound officials, too, as Flores noted, citing that in Pinellas County, where diversion programs have been in place for years, 94 percent of eligible juveniles received civil citations.

“But drive across the bridge into Hillsborough County — it’s only one-third, or 36 percent,” she said.

Senate Bill 196 requires a law enforcement officer to issue a civil citation or require the juvenile’s participation in a diversion program when the juvenile admits to committing certain first-time misdemeanor offenses including: possession of alcoholic beverages, criminal mischief, trespass, and disorderly conduct, among others.

The legislation also mandates the policing community to provide written documentation articulating why an arrest is warranted when he or she has the discretion to issue a civil citation, but instead chooses to arrest the juvenile.

According to The Tampa Bay Times, 52 percent of minors got civil citations throughout the state in 2016.

“If law enforcement had been better at adopting these programs early on, but the truth is, we put too many juveniles in jail, and Florida lags behind,” Sen. Jeff Clemens said bluntly. “It’s time we bring Florida to parity with the rest of the nation.”

Flores closed the bill’s discussion before the unanimous vote favoring the legislation.

“I think training officers is a great idea, but it’s not enough,” she said. “The bill requires better and improved reporting. You know, it’s a little uneasy when you go against what law enforcement says … but we all have to get to a comfortable place where we can talk about it.”

After the committee had closed, Senate President Joe Negron weighed in with a statement.

“In too many cases, we have become a society where law enforcement officers are brought in to referee the day-to-day challenges of raising children,”  Negron said. The Stuart Republican has made juvenile justice reform a top priority of his two-year term.

“This legislation strikes an appropriate balance between public safety and decriminalizing the mistakes of adolescents.”

Separately, the commissioner for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement gave a presentation asking for the establishment of a state counterterrorism force on par with that of the FBI.

Dean Register spoke to the committee members, asking for 46 new positions and $6.4 million to run it annually.

He justified it by citing several of the 9/11 hijackers received their flight training in Florida.


Judiciary Committee unanimously OK’s claim bill for man injured in bus accident as teen

The Senate Committee on Judiciary overwhelmingly passed a claims bill Tuesday, compensating a man seriously injured as a teen when the van he was riding in was smashed from behind by a school bus belonging to the district.

The claims bill — SB 24 — was sponsored by Sen. Anitere Flores, who wanted the district to stick with a portion of a future compensation awarded by a jury.

The district admitted liability in the 2006 incident, in which Altavious Carter, then 14, was inside van of his coach, Vincent Merriweather, then 41, when the driver a school district bus slammed into the back of the van Merriweather was driving.

Merriweather was immobilized in 80 percent of his body as a result of the crash a settlement was reached in 2009 for $3.9 million.

Carter, who underwent a series of costly and intense surgeries, including on his spine and back, was awarded an initial judgment of $574,000, with future claims of up to $518,000.

However, the Palm Beach County School District opposed SB 24 in the committee hearing on Tuesday, citing Carter has made a full recovery and even went on to play basketball at Eckerd College.

But the committee wasn’t interested in the county’s opposition and promptly passed the measure 8-0.

The committee heard several other measures Tuesday, most of which had to do with gun-rights legislation in the Sunshine State.

Now lawmakers are looking to take advantage of their Republican-controlled majority in both the House of Representatives and Senate, with Gov. Rick Scott’s support, to expand on those rights.

But one Republican on the committee — Flores — voiced her opposition to the array of legislation before their committee on just the first day of the Legislative Session, including a controversial bill that could allow firearms on state campus universities.

With a packed room of voters looking on — many of them mothers in attendance of another bill on yet to be heard about keeping the identities of murder witnesses confidential — she contended her opinion differed from others on the committee.

However, she did support a bill introduced by Sen. Greg Steube, chair of the Judiciary Committee, relating to guns and courthouses.

“If this bill expands, or any other bill, expands beyond its current scope, it’s something I will not vote for,” Flores said firmly to her fellow senators.

“I do not support having guns on campus, I do not support having guns in airports and I do not support guns in school zones,” she said, acknowledging that she and Steube “do not see eye-to-eye” on the issue. Her sentiment was echoed by fellow South Florida Republican Rene Garcia.

More than 1.7 million Florida residents already have permits to carry concealed handguns, the most of any state in the U.S.

Separately, Sen. Steube’s bill narrowly passed a vote by the committee. It would allow those with concealed gun licenses to approach a courthouse, draw their handgun out and hand it to law enforcement at the entrances to judiciary facilities for proper and secure storage while licensees conduct their business inside.

When those concealed carry licensees leave the courthouse, SB 616 contends, those individuals would pick up their firearms safely from storage with law enforcement.

The bill squeaked by 5-4.

Steube told the committee and those in attendance the bill is intended for lawyers, judges or even victims of domestic violence fearing reprisal.

Two much-anticipated measures on Tuesday were tabled that would exempt law enforcers, retired law enforcement officers and concealed carry licensees from the standard three-day wait time all other Floridians must go through in the process of purchasing handguns.

Sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley, the bills — SJR 910 and SB 912 — would also waive the criminal background check for qualified individuals among the three groups specially singled out for such expedited handgun purchases.

If approved the amendment would be brought before a general election to be held in November 2018 or a special election specifically authorized by law, according to the language of the bill.

SJR 910 is actually an amendment to the State Constitution for the exemptions.

Specifically, a “concealed weapon or concealed firearm licensees and certain current and retired law enforcement officers from certain county criminal history and waiting period requirements when purchasing a firearm, providing a contingent effective date,” Baxley’s SB 912 proposal, a continuation of SJR 910.

FloridaPolitics.com tried to reach the Senator for comment without success.

Another bill, introduced by Sen. Rob Bradley — SB 494 — looks to compensate the victims of wrongful incarceration, although the measure has been before the Statehouse floor several times before without success.

“It’s my hope we can get this passed this time around,” Sen. Bradley told the committee, which voted unanimously in favor of the proposal.

Finally, another bill introduced by Sen. Randolph Bracy was unanimously passed.

CS/SB 550 is a confidentiality bill, intended to keep the identities of those testifying as witnesses in a murder trial secret and out of public record. A number of cases of murder witnesses being intimidated have let killers go free.

This bill intends to end that cycle.

“My only daughter was murdered right here in Tallahassee in 2008,” Orlando City Commissioner Regina Hill told the committee on Tuesday in the committee meeting room. “It was a bittersweet memory arriving here today. We need you today to pass this bill.

“Once they know they’re not protected by the ‘no-snitch’ attitude — they’ll think twice about picking up a gun again,” she concluded emotionally.

Bill would require LEOs to wear body cameras during traffic stops

In an effort to promote public safety, a state legislator filed a bill widening by a far margin the state’s use of body cameras by the law enforcement community at large.

State Rep. Al Jacquet filed HB 513 Monday. The bill would, if enacted, require officers to wear and use body cameras while conducting routine traffic stops every time.

“Body cameras are a tool to increase public safety that help protect both officers and the citizens they serve,” Jacquet said in a statement. “Dashboard cameras have helped to protect people for years and this builds off that idea. It’s our responsibility to do all we can to increase accountability, safety and trust for both officers and their communities.”

HB 513 is a companion proposal is SB 828, proposed by Sen. Bobby Powell.

Body cameras have been a growing issue across the nation.

The Miami Police Department is already mandated to wear them, but a recent spot check audit found many of them weren’t wearing them or downloading the footage when they did wear them, according to a Miami New Times article Monday.

Proponents argue the transparency protects both civilians and the police wearing them.

Parenting plan bill that skip courts, lifts court overload gets unilateral support in Senate committee

A bill heard by a Florida Senate committee Monday seeks to streamline the process of setting up a parenting plan for unmarried parents, according to its sponsor.

The proposal in the Senate’s Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee – SB 590 – was introduced by its lead author, Sen. Jeff Brandes, with members voting in the end to forward the bill.

After that, the bill still must go through several more committees, then heard on the floor of the Statehouse before it becomes law.

The bill looks to authorize the Florida Department of Revenue to establish parenting time plans agreed to by both parents under Title IV-D child support actions of the Social Security Act, as permitted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (Title Iv-D is a federal public welfare program that took effect in 1975. It is a conduit for states to enforce child support programs on parent’s delinquent in such responsibilities, etc.)

“The bottom line is that this bill is not just about money, it’s about spending quality time with kids,” Brandes told the committee.

He was asked what costs the bill would incur to the state, responding there would be a one-time, non-recurring cost of $419,000, with annual recurring costs of $20,000.

“It’s a very economical way for kids to see their dads,” Brandes said.

Brandes’ bill also looks to encourage frequent contact between a child and a parent, or parents, for the positive development of children.

The committee peppered the senator with questions, with one came from Sen. Victor Torres, vice-chair of the committee, who wondered whether it affected parents who lived in other states or under nontraditional conditions. He also mentioned he thought it might need a little tweaking before a vote on the floor of the Florida Senate.

Brandes said if a child is under 3-years old, or if one of the parents has committed a crime – like not paying child support or having been convicted of domestic violence – then the custodial parent wouldn’t have to agree to a parenting plan.

In the event the parents can’t agree on a parenting time plan, they would be referred to a circuit court in their district for the establishment of a program. In these instances, parents wouldn’t pay a fee to file a petition to determine a parenting time plan.

The bill would go into effect Jan. 1, 2018.

It has long been agreed upon by child development experts and those in the psychiatric communities that closer parent-child relationships can often lead to emotional and behavioral stability in adulthood, and overall better mental health, according to the online journal Psychology Today.

The article also noted when parents and children fall out of timing with each other, either of the parties may become mentally distressed.

However, there was a voice of dissent.

Beth Luna, a Jacksonville-based attorney who spoke to the committee about her opposition to the measure, said it SB 590 needs improvements.

“It’s a long-standing policy of this state to do what’s best for a child,” Luna said. “You just can’t implement a plan that’s a one size fits all approach. … Not every child is the same. A child at 16 or 17 is going to be different than a child who is 3 or 4 – the same goes for a special needs child.”

All parenting plans are approved in Family Court in the state of Florida.

Her concerns elicited a host of questions by the committee members, who considered her viewpoint.

But in the end, there was unanimous support for Brandes’ bill.

Range of DCF oversight issues, bills to be debated by Florida lawmakers this Session

As legislators in Tallahassee prepare themselves to convene their 60-day Session Tuesday, expect an assortment of proposed bills to be hashed out over the Department of Children and Families (DCF).

Hot-button subjects with bipartisan support in the Senate and House include improvements in mental health and substance abuse treatment programs, working toward identifying and reducing human trafficking, better child protection and a funding shift from the federal level, according to several officials who spoke with FloridaPolitics.com ahead of Session.

The agency has had a string of high-profile incidents drawing negative attention beyond the state’s borders.  For example, it was recently discovered that scores of reports were falsified by DCF investigators, at least partly, during official investigations, leading to resignations, terminations and in some cases, arrests.

In a few instances, historically, lying on such reports led the agency to lose track of where children are located.

It is a felony to construct false information in child welfare cases in the state of Florida, and the agency began to take the issue seriously as far back as 10 years ago.

In another instance in February, a DCF investigator in Polk County was arrested and charged with trafficking drugs with her live-in boyfriend. Laymeshia Hicks, the mother of a 3-year-old child who lived in her home, had 68 grams of heroin and 288 grams of cocaine in her house with an estimated street value of about $35,000, authorities said.

Worse yet are the deaths of minor children continuing under the department’s care or in instances where the agency had been alerted to a situation but didn’t act in a time appropriate manner. Among the most sensationalist stories making headlines around the country — shocking Florida residents — were the deaths of Naika Venant in Miami Gardens and Phoebe Jonchuck in St. Petersburg.

Naika committed suicide by hanging herself in January while streaming on the Facebook Live application with potentially hundreds of viewers watching for two hours. Phoebe was thrown more than 60 feet off a St. Petersburg bridge into the Tampa Bay waters by her father, John Jonchuck, who was recently found competent to stand trial later this year.

DCF had been warned or involved in both cases.

The continuing embarrassments don’t bode well for public trust in the agency, agreed Rep. Julio Gonzalez, vice-chair of the House Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee.

But when asked how difficult it is to implement reforms in the wake of such tragedies while also weighing the human-variant quotient into the mix, he said it’s always a challenge to identify and close gaps where policy lags.

“This is a never-ending process of fine tuning the oversight of what the various agencies are doing with these very vulnerable people,” he told FloridaPolitics.com Saturday by telephone. “It is completely unacceptable, and it’s a gross mistrust for all of as human beings.”

He countered, however, the subcommittee – through the leadership of Rep. Gayle Harrell, were working diligently to reduce tragedies. They aren’t waiting for the problems to present themselves to the public – they’re actively engaged in preempting issues that are often affiliated with tragedies like Naika’s and Phoebe’s. In the case of Naika, she had endured physical and sexual abuse, no doubt creating a confusing mindset. And in the case of Phoebe, her father was bipolar, but had not been taking his medicine.

“These issues associated with substance abuse, drug addiction, and mental health – we’re working on legislation to address these problems, especially in so-called safe houses, where some of these people are being placed, and the environments in and around those locations offer temptations back into those situations they’re trying to get out of,” Gonzalez said.

Sen. Rene Garcia, chair of the Senate’s Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, is taking up a similar approach, per his legislative assistant, Alessandro D’Amico.

D’Amico said by phone Sunday the committee’s goals would center on mental health – and not just treatment improvements, but the education of the public as a whole about stigmatizing mental health issues – and issues surrounding human trafficking, which often involves children.

“It’s no secret these are two of the top priorities right now for the committee,” he said. “In terms of stigmatizing – we don’t have associate medical procedures negatively, so why would we treat mental health diagnoses any differently? And human trafficking has become a major issue in Florida.”

A report issued by a state agency in 2016 found that between Dec. 7, 2007, and Dec. 31, 2015, Florida residents placed 6,819 calls to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) Hotline.

“This represents the third highest call volume in the United States,” the report said. “Of these calls, 1,510 (22 percent) were classified by the NHTRC to have moderate or high potential of being a legitimate report of human trafficking.”

It continued to note Florida data collected between 2013 and 2015 revealed 1,136 reports, with 367 or 32 percent, involving minor victims. Within this population, 83.6 percent were female, and 16.4 percent were male. The NHTRC noted the findings weren’t cumulative and not all victims identify gender. Of the 1,136 potential cases reported to the NHTRC from 2013 to 2015, 802 or 71 percent, were classified as sex trafficking, while 207 or 18 percent, were classified as labor trafficking, 44 or 4 percent, were classified as both, and 83 or 7 percent, were not specified.

Reforms within DCF are an important aspect of what the committees do and hope to accomplish with this session, according to Rep. Gayle Harrell, who chairs the same subcommittee alongside Gonzalez. This is her fifth year leading the committee.

“We’re certainly going to continue the work we began four years ago in reforming the child-welfare system,” Harrell said by phone late Sunday while driving to Tallahassee in preparation for the Session. “Children have been terribly abused, so we’re going to make sure that when we have to remove them from a home that we place them in the right location.”

She went on to note the committees were implementing significant changes, but that it takes time to filter through all affiliated organizations.

As for Gov. Rick Scott, he issued a statement through his press secretary, Lauren Schenone, to FloridaPolitics.com Sunday, reiterating his commitment to the children, families, and seniors of the Sunshine State, assuring Floridians he would crack down on DCF employees who abuse the public’s trust.

“Any employee found guilty of wrongdoing is expected to be held fully accountable,” the statement read, in part.

And on the never-ending demand to keep the agency funded, which in turn helps DCF employ more investigators to find children in need, families in crisis and seniors in vulnerable situations, he touted his budget for this coming fiscal year, which devotes “significant investments” toward mental health programs, with three select counties separately undergoing a test program for improved CBCs to better enable his office to gauge potential wider use across the entire state,

“The governor believes strongly that all children in our state deserve to live a safe and healthy life,” the statement emphasized. “Additionally, Gov. Scott signed Executive Order 15-175 in July 2015, which directed the Department of Children and Families to develop, and implement best management practices based on pilot programs in Broward, Pinellas and Alachua counties.”


FloridaPolitics.com will keep readers informed of DCF-related legislation as debates progress over the next two months, along with publishing daily reports on relevant issues associated with the agency and those working for it, as well as those under its care.

DCF roundup: ‘Beating, burning … electrical shocking’ of children; another infant’s death is Dept’s third visit

Brace yourself, because this is the Lord’s Day and we here at Florida Politics don’t like being the bearer of bad news on Sunday, but it is what it is. Save a few prayers for the souls in today’s roundup, especially the first two entries, which are ugly and uglier.

— We begin in Fort Myers, where municipal police were notified by Dept. of Children and Families (DCF) investigators in late February there was a certain amount of disturbing information being gathered on one Jhonson Benel and his family, according to Fort Myers Police Department Lt. Jay Rodriguez, who confirmed Benel’s arrest to FloridaPolitics.com early Sunday morning.

Benel, 37, was charged with one count of aggravated child abuse and two counts of child neglect (without bodily harm) and quickly posted a $40,000 bond in just four and a half hours after being arrested. However, some of the details coming out of the case are, indeed, disturbing.

According to Rodriguez, there was no sexual abuse, but rather “physical abuse – to the extent of bruising, beating, burning and possibly even electrical shocking,” he said.

It’s assumed Benel is the father of the two minor children, whose names and ages are being protected due to privacy laws.

Rodriguez wasn’t aware of whether or not Benel’s prior history included child abuse. Most aspects of the case are confidential at this time, as the investigation is ongoing – standard protocol in DCF cases. But the basic facts are there were two children being abused – one potentially more than the other.

A regional DCF spokesperson told The News-Press that both children had been placed in the care of relatives.

Moving on …

— We switch to the east coast of Florida, to Loxahatchee in Palm Beach County, where an 11-month-old toddler boy was discovered by his “caregiver” in the crib “whimpering” with a blanket wrapped around his neck, according to The Palm Beach Post. A week later, on Wednesday, after being on life support, he was dead, the story says.

This wasn’t the first time something unusual had happened to the boy, who lived in both Palm Beach and Broward counties during his short stint on this planet.

His death marks the third investigation into the boy by DCF investigators, the Post reported.

“DCF fielded at least two reports of abuse in the baby’s 11 months of life, the first being not long after he was born. Department records do not indicate the nature of the incident, beyond stating that the boy was eventually placed into his mother’s care,” the Post said. “At least one of those investigations yielded verified proof either of abuse or neglect.”

It was unclear on Sunday whether the “caregiver” under whose care the boy was in was a family member or not, but one thing is clear, his care was in constant question.

“We are devastated to learn of the loss of this child and we grieve with all those who cared for him,” DCF Sec. Mike Carroll said in a statement Friday, according to the Post. “The family is known to the child welfare system, and because of the history and ongoing involvement, a Critical Incident Rapid Response Team will be deployed to review all interaction with this child.”

The Post noted 23 children died in Palm Beach County in 2016, with at least two of them having been determined to be homicides.

“The family’s of those two children both had been investigated multiple times by the department,” the Post concluded.

— Next up, we move to the Panhandle and Walton County, where a 23-month-old toddler was left alone for an undetermined amount of time and was found “unresponsive” while in the care of his drugged out father, according to Panama City’s digital newspaper, MyPanhandle.com, last week.

Sheriff’s deputies pulled over Joshua Daniel Huckaba on State Highway 83 and discovered the child unconscious and took him to the hospital, where he was treated and released.

Huckaba admitted to law enforcers he had been using pot in the car, presumably with the toddler still inside – helpless to the wafting smoke. Huckaba was arrested for possession of methamphetamine, possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana, and possession of drug paraphernalia, the news outlet said.

DCF is said to be investigating.

— And on to Orange City, where we bring you a bizarre story that might seem humorous if only for the sheer lack of training or overwhelming ignorance on the part of the staff of an assisted-living facility for seniors.

On Friday the Daytona Beach News Journal reported the strange situation of a resident patient who had a thing for pulling his pants down and exposing himself. Apparently there were “numerous incidents of sexual contact between one male patient and multiple female patients,” the News Journal noted in its lede sentence.

The report cites the investigation as being carried out by regulators with the state Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA), which did not note whether the encounters were consensual. (We asked you to pray for these souls, didn’t we? It gets worse … )

As the News-Journal continued, citing AHCA documentation: “In all, the agency documented six incidents, according to AHCA officials: the man was twice found engaging in sexual intercourse with another patient; he touched staff members inappropriately; he was found once locked in the bathroom with another patient with his pants down; and he exposed himself, forcing female patients to touch his genitals.”

Wow. We’re at a loss for words it’s so disturbing.

And the reference to humor? There’s nothing really humorous here – it was a hook to keep you reading through to this story. The reference is actually disturbing.

Staff reported the incidents to senior managers, but the facility’s top executives did not change anything.

“What’s more, regulators said, employees were unaware that they were also required to report the incidents to Florida’s Department of Children and Families,” the News-Journal said. “AHCA officials concluded: ‘The facility lacks a cogent understanding of a resident’s right to personal dignity, individuality, and privacy.’”


The investigation is still ongoing.

And finally

— DCF officials issued the two recalls this morning regarding Evanger’s dog and cat food, and Meijer ham and cheese sandwiches for those of us who like pre-made food. Please take note for the safety of your loved ones, which include your pets:

Evanger’s Pet Food and Against the Grain Voluntarily Recalls Additional Products Out of Abundance of Caution due to Potential Adulteration with Pentobarbital

Out of an abundance of caution, Evanger’s Dog & Cat Food is voluntarily expanding its recall of Hunk of Beef and is also recalling Evanger’s Braised Beef and Against the Grain’s Pulled Beef Products due to potential adulteration with pentobarbital. Oral exposure to pentobarbital can cause drowsiness, dizziness, excitement, loss of balance, nausea, nystagmus (eyes moving back and forth in a jerky manner), inability to stand, coma and death. Consumers who notice these symptoms in their pets should consult their veterinarian.

Meijer Expands Recall To Include Meijer Artisan Made Natural Muenster Cheese And Pre-Made Ham Sub Sandwich Due To Possible Health Risk

Meijer expanded its list of recalled items to now include its Meijer brand Artisan Made Natural Muenster Cheese and its pre-wrapped Ham Sub on Artisan White Baguette due to a potential cross contamination with Listeria monocytogenes, an organism which can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems. Although healthy individuals may suffer only short-term symptoms such as high fever, severe headache, stiffness, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea, a Listeria monocytogenes infection can cause miscarriages and stillbirths among pregnant women.

DCF roundup: Jonchuck competent, victims compensation bill, minor left alone by DCF-contractor, burns on toddler’s back and alleged child molester

On Friday a Pinellas County judge ruled John Jonchuck competent to stand trial in the alleged murder of his five-year-old daughter, Phoebe, when he threw her off a St. Petersburg-area bridge. She fell more than 60 feet into the water. In her last few hours, several calls had been made to law enforcement officials and the Department of Children and Families (DCF) hotline warning of her father’s behavior. The calls were noted and filed.

But within hours Phoebe had died, a killing that alarmed the Tampa Bay community, and more broadly, Florida residents. DCF has instituted significant changes, but many think more needs to be done, including Jonchuck’s former lawyer, Genevieve Torres.

Jonchuck’s trial is expected to begin in the fall, but a pre-trial hearing is already set for March 27 at 1:30 p.m.

In other news:

 A claims bill sponsored by St. Sen. Anitere Flores began moving through the senate, according to Miami’s WLRN, quoting Flores. SB 18 compensates kids in DCF custody who are survivors of abuse and the estates of minors who are victims in abuse leading to their deaths.

This is the fourth time the bill has been proposed by Flores and it passed its first committee in the senate last week. It still has to be heard in the House. The bill was inspired to compensate the surviving sibling of a sister and brother adopted by horribly abusive parents — the sister died.

 Then there’s this odd story out of Ft. Myers about an unattended 13-yr-old girl loitering about in front of a library. A woman near a librarian noticed her and took her to get some food. The young girl told the woman that her “case worker” dropped her off.  Another woman joined them, trying to help figure things out.

When a woman, Jacinta Brunson, working for Lutheran Services Florida – a subcontractor of the Department of Children and Families – rolled up in a Mustang and copped an attitude when the women asked who she was and that she needed to present identification before they would let the girl go with her, Brunson refused to identify herself to the women, who called the police.

Then two DCF employees showed up, flashed their badges and whisked the girl away.

(Did someone call the Gestapo?)

— A toddler was dropped off at a school in Miami with burns on her back, according to Miami 7 News. It’s being investigated by DCF.

— Then there’s this guy, accused of sexually abusing children, out of Gainesville. It’s being investigated by law enforcement and DCF officials, according to The Gainesville Sun.

Florida leads nation in disabled Americans ‘murdered’ by family, caregivers; media coverage ‘killer centered’

A recent study carried out by an organization advocating for the rights of disabled people found that Florida was at the top of a list over a four-year period in which 21 mentally- or physically-challenged persons died as a result of their caregivers’ neglect or malice.

One of the reasons Florida led the nation was because of its Sunshine Law, said Kristina Kopić, who spoke by telephone Friday from Newtown, Massachusetts. She was one of the contributing authors of the report.

“Florida’s media has more permissive access to government databases and information, so there is more reporting on these issues,” she said.

But, she cautioned, 21 was a low figure and didn’t truly reflect the number of disabled people killed in the Sunshine State.

“It is an undercount by all means,” Kopić said. “We only looked at those disabled people who were killed and covered by the media. We did not look for death certificates across the state, so it does not include many others presumably.”

The 43-page report, titled ‘Media Coverage of Murders of People with Disabilities by their Caregivers,’ examined the deaths of 260 people with a wide range of disabilities – requiring  some form of help in their daily lives – from January 2011 to December 2015, according to The Ruderman Family Foundation, Kopić ‘s employer – a Jewish-community focused nonprofit dedicated to integrating those who are challenged into regular society.

Of those, “219 were killed by parents and caregivers,” claimed the foundation, which is based in Newtown, Massachusetts, and does not accept unsolicited proposals, according to its website.

Dubbed a “white paper” by the group, the study’s theme is a critique of the mainstream media for shining the spotlight on the perpetrators of such crimes.

“Journalists, consciously or unconsciously, often write stories that build sympathy for the murderer and the circumstances that led them to their crime, while the person with a disability is erased from the story,” the report stated. “The killers routinely claim ‘hardship’ as a justification for their acts (and) the media rarely questions such claims or asks for comment from disability rights organizations, and especially not from people with disabilities themselves.”

Further, the analysis read, “Spreading the hardship narrative may lead to more violence, rather than changing policy around supports. … Many killers receive little to no prison time. In such cases, perceptions of disability as suffering inform judicial decisions not to punish murder.”

However, it was not immediately clear how their claims were verified regarding the hardship narrative leading to increased homicides among the disabled or that judiciary reasoning favored caregivers.

The foundation did cite a U.S. Dept. of Justice report from 2014 that found people with disabilities were at a higher risk of victimization, sometimes through violence, during the study’s research period from 2009 to 2012.

The study equated so-called “mercy killings” with violent murders but excluded assisted-suicide cases.

“This (study) was not about people in hospitals,” Kopić, the co-author of the report, said. “These were cases involving manslaughter and homicide.

The foundation’s research included several case studies, including one from Chicago, in which Alex Spourdalakis, 14, and was autistic, was killed by his mother and grandmother. They were eventually freed after just three years, as reported by ABC 7 Chicago-affiliate TV station. Among their ongoing coverage, the same station had aired a report on Alex approximately two years before.

The study quoted Channel 7 to support their viewpoint: “The judge sentenced them to time served. The women got credit for the three years they’ve spent at the Cook County Jail, which is why they were released. Spourdalakis, who said she struggled to care for her son, walked out of prison a free woman. Despite spending three years at Cook County Jail, she had to come to Logan Correctional Facility in downstate Lincoln, Illinois, to be processed for her release. She declined to speak to reporters as she left. … Spourdalakis and her son were featured in a film about the family’s struggle by an autism activist group. She said she needed help, but none was available. … Initially, they were charged with first-degree murder, but the State’s Attorney reduced the charge. Their attorneys said the two women feel an immense amount of guilt they will have to live with.”

But the Ruderman Family Foundation’s perspective on this case was firm.

“No media report should simply voice the denials and excuses of two killers who murdered an autistic child in their care without, at least, providing some context and counter views,” the foundation said.

FloridaPolitics.com reached out to Channel 7’s public relations department Friday, but a message was not immediately returned.

A comprehensive breakdown of cases and the charges involved in each killing can be found in a spreadsheet here.


Review of 250 reports by DCF investigators accused of lying shows 40 percent falsified

Caseworkers at the Florida Department of Children and Families are being forced to shoulder nearly unbelievable workloads, leading some to falsify records, according to a new report by an Orlando TV news station.

A single child protection investigator in the (DCF) had at one point 32 cases with 77 accompanying children, show DCF documents provided to ABC affiliate WFTV.

The state agency tasked with overseeing child welfare in the Sunshine State gave the ABC News Channel 9 Investigates team – which carried out an examination of DCF employee record falsifications, running the segment Wednesday night – records indicating 59 employees had been terminated since sometime in 2014, reporter Daralene Jones said.

There are 267 DCF investigators currently deployed throughout DCF’s Central Florida classification region.

But, as Jones noted, the number didn’t factor in the hundreds of employees contracted by the state through what it calls community-based care agencies (what it commonly refers to as CBCs) and, statewide, through sheriff’s offices.

Of Florida’s 67 counties, six county sheriff’s offices have child protective divisions who take lead on child welfare reports over DCF investigators – of those six, four are in the Tampa Bay area (Manatee, Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco), one is in the Orlando (Seminole County) area. The other is Broward County.

The report cited the average caseload for DCF investigators is currently between 18 to 21. One former DCF investigator Jones spoke with, who remained anonymous for the report, said he’d had 34 cases at one time during a particularly busy point before he was arrested for falsifying reports in portions of some of his investigations. At the time of the arrest, he told Jones, there were 24 open cases involving 36 children.

DCF Secretary Mike Carroll told state legislators in a committee meeting last week he’d like to get that number down to 15.

But is that possible?

A memo dated Feb. 28, 2017, cites March 1 as the day the agency – under Carroll’s directive – is set to streamline management of cases by reducing “excessive documentation,” so child protection investigators can move more swiftly in opening and closing their cases.

As of Wednesday, “less than 4 percent of our CPI workforce is carrying a caseload of more than 30 open investigations and 18 percent of the workforce has a caseload of 25 open investigations,” Carroll said in the memo.

Carroll refused multiple interviews with Channel 9.


Toddler dies after hours in hot car parked outside Tampa day care

A 2-year-old boy died after his half-sister left him in a hot car parked outside a Tampa-area day care for several hours while the girl was working, a law enforcement spokesman said Wednesday.

Hillsborough County Sheriff deputies were called to the Oak Park Shopping Center Tuesday at 2:40 p.m. at the corner of W. Lumsden Road and Kings Avenue in Brandon.

They were responding to a child found locked in an unattended vehicle, said Det. Larry McKinnon, a representative for the HCSO.

McKinnon told FloridaPolitics.com paramedics rushed Jacob Manchego to Brandon Regional Hospital, where the boy later died.

“We’ve told the public for years about the dangers of leaving small children and animals in hot cars, but we continue to see it happen,” he said. “We have a responsibility to protect our children, so we have to charge people in these cases even though they didn’t intentionally mean to do it.”

Fiorella Vanessa Silva-Tello, Manchengo’s 21-year-old half-sister, arrived for work at the BFF Kidz Child Care Center at 733 West Lumsden Road with Jacob in the back of the SUV she was driving, a police report noted.

Detectives are actively investigating Silva-Tello and any other potential witnesses, along with gathering physical evidence. No charges have been filed against the young woman so far, as the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office continues their portion of the inquiry.

Investigators will be reviewing the prior history of the child, including any calls for service at the residence, McKinnon said.

“In this case, a mother lost her 2-year-old son to her 21-year-old daughter and it’s a terribly sad situation,” the detective said.

He further noted investigators were trying to determine whether Manchego was enrolled at the day care or why he was in the car in the first place.

“That’s all being examined right now and we’re not going to leave any stone unturned,” he said.

In 2015 the Florida state legislature passed a bill — known as the Good Samaritan Law — protecting citizens from lawsuits when they break windows open to cars to free children or pets trapped in overheated cars to save their lives.

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