Phoebe Jonchuck was alive when thrown from bridge near Sunshine Skyway
Five-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck was alive early Thursday when she hurtled 62 feet from her father’s arms to the dark waters of Tampa Bay, where a search crew found her lifeless body hours later.
But for years before that horrible morning, child protective investigative records show, she was living in a home full of strife. Beginning in 2012, specialists from the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office received multiple reports of problems between Phoebe’s parents, John Jonchuck Jr. and Michelle Kerr.
On one occasion, they reached “verified findings” that violence threatened children in the home, though they apparently did not recommend intervention that advocates say is typical in such welfare cases.
“It’s hard for me to imagine that they would not have made a referral for services,” said Nikki Daniels, a therapist who specializes in trauma and domestic violence.
Shortly after midnight Wednesday, Jonchuck, 25, drove Phoebe to the top of the Dick Misener Bridge in St. Petersburg, pulled her from the back seat of his PT Cruiser, and dropped her over the railing, according to authorities. An off-duty St. Petersburg police officer, gun drawn, was standing behind Jonchuck, telling him to stay in the car.
Authorities confirmed Friday that Phoebe was alive when she fell. Detectives also called for help from the public in reconstructing the days before Phoebe’s death. They asked to speak with anyone who saw Jonchuck in the last week, especially clergy he might have visited. He remains jailed on murder and other charges.
In late May 2013, an argument between Jonchuck and Kerr, 29, turned physical at their home in Tampa. Investigators said he pushed her and she scratched him in retaliation. By the time deputies arrived, both were cut up. As Jonchuck was arrested, children slept inside the house.
The charges against Jonchuck were later dropped, and investigators from the sheriff’s Child Protective Investigations Division met with the family in June of that year. They checked back the following month, when Phoebe was living alone with Jonchuck. He had secured an injunction against Kerr, and set up appropriate sleeping arrangements for Phoebe, along with adequate food and clothing.
They closed the case, offering a resource guide and other pamphlets to the family. A summary indicates that investigators offered some type of services to Kerr, but officials could not say Friday what those were, and Kerr declined them anyway.
At that time, Daniels said, child protection workers should have pushed Jonchuck toward voluntary intervention services that would have helped him build a safe home for Phoebe. Such a recommendation is typical when investigators do not want to remove children from their families.
“If they really missed making that referral, to me that’s really a concern,” she said.
The main partner in such cases around Tampa Bay is Eckerd, a child and family organization that can remove children from a home entirely or make house calls.
“We do provide in-home services, so if it doesn’t reach that level for removal, we can come into the home and do what’s called a case plan to work with the parent,” said spokeswoman Terri Durdaller. She said neither Jonchuck nor Kerr had been referred to Eckerd.
“Allegations are one thing, but the conclusions of investigations are what really matters to determine the outcome for the child,” said Hillsborough sheriff’s spokesman Larry McKinnon. He said it was not atypical to see a family with multiple child protective reports. “I think anytime you have a family that’s having disputes, its not uncommon for multiple complaints to come in.”
Child protective investigators had looked into Jonchuck and Kerr twice before in 2012, and they did not recommend services either time, according to records released by the state Department of Children and Families. DCF contracts with the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office, which performs welfare investigations around Tampa.
In February 2012, Jonchuck’s mother, Michele, was arrested on drug charges after someone complained to authorities that she had been smoking crack cocaine while watching a baby. Child protective investigators learned that Phoebe had been staying overnight at her grandmother’s home about three times a month, but there was no evidence she was exposed to open drug use.
Phoebe’s parents eventually signed a safety plan but during the course of that investigation, Jonchuck angrily hung up on a sheriff’s employee who informed him that his mother had tested positive for cocaine. The investigators recommended drug treatment programs for Michele Jonchuck, but records do not show any service referrals for Phoebe’s mother and father.
Ten days after that report was closed, child protective investigators opened another case upon learning that Jonchuck may have choked Kerr two months before. Someone further alleged that Jonchuck had used crystal methamphetamine and that Phoebe’s parents had locked her in their bedroom. Both Kerr and Jonchuck denied the allegations and said the antique crystal doorknobs in their apartment often fell to the floor, which is why she had been locked in a room once while playing.
In both 2012 cases, investigators made note of Jonchuck and Kerr’s history of domestic disputes, but did not find that Phoebe was especially vulnerable to abuse. Kerr had been arrested in 2007 on a child neglect charge after deputies came to her apartment and found one of her older children unsupervised, according to an arrest report. She pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and admitted: “I left for work today. Should have waited for babysitter . . . to come first but didn’t. I made a huge mistake.”
Advocates say the presence of domestic violence alone is enough to make a child vulnerable. Child abuse is more common in homes with domestic violence, which on its own can cause emotional trauma, leading to nightmares, stress and other symptoms.
“Just because domestic violence doesn’t physically impact children, it can emotionally impact them,” said Robin L. Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida’s Children First.
Suzanne Parker, director of the Guardian ad Litem Program for the Hillsborough judicial circuit, said abuse does not necessarily have to be directed at the child. “You can have a domestic violence situation in the presence of the child and that constitutes abuse,” she said.
Phoebe never showed signs of battery or malnourishment. Her teachers did not express alarm.
Investigators received another report last February alleging that Jonchuck had pulled Phoebe’s arm two years prior, and another in April accusing her day care director of smoking marijuana. Both were deemed insufficient to suspect abuse or neglect.
Then on Wednesday, Jonchuck’s lawyer called to report his erratic behavior. He was driving around Tampa in his pajamas and seemed “depressed and delusional,” according to a record of the allegations. Investigators again determined there was not sufficient evidence to suspect abuse or neglect.
The last filing for Phoebe was logged Thursday. The location was All Children’s Hospital. Her “father had tossed [her] off a bridge.”
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