Five-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck died when her father threw her off a bridge in St. Petersburg, Florida. Investigators now know she was still alive before being dropped over 60 feet into the cold waters of Tampa Bay.
In the aftermath of her cruel death, we’re left wondering how this happened. How did John Jonchuck manage to raise so many red flags without action taken against him?
Questions are being asked because this is a high profile case. Phoebe died on a landmark bridge in a heinous fashion that made headlines across the nation. Her death feels especially senseless because she was so close to being rescued.
Both of her parents had a history with child protective services. Mere hours before Phoebe died, Jonchuck’s own attorney frantically called 911 to tell the authorities the 25-year-old father was behaving erratically and had his little girl in tow. She cried on the phone, telling the operator, “I just regret not keeping her in the office and letting her go.” The attorney also called the Child Abuse Hotline, and was told her concerns didn’t warrant anyone checking on Phoebe.
Sheriff’s deputies interviewed Jonchuck just one day before Phoebe died, but the Department of Children and Families didn’t follow up on his delusional, disturbing behavior.
Phoebe slipped between the cracks. The system designed to protect children from their own parents failed her.
Welfare agencies have pledged to improve in light of her death. But she wasn’t the first child to die at the hands of a parent. A quick glance at the news each day shows that she wasn’t the last. Changes made in Phoebe’s name honor the memory of every child who has suffered — who will suffer — at the hands of a trusted adult.
Improving the system won’t be an easy task. To understand the scope of the problem, keep in mind that a child abuse report is made every 10 seconds. Nearly 30 percent of children in the United States experience physical abuse. Over 20 percent experience sexual abuse. These are mind-boggling rates. It’s no wonder the child welfare services in place struggle to keep up with the number of children who need support.
Here’s how you can help
- Don’t be afraid to call a child abuse hotline if a child is showing signs of being abused.
- Donate time, money or other resources to local child protection agencies, including group homes and foster care organizations.
- Support mental health and substance abuse services for all children and adults.
- Support family services that provide resources and education to parents.
- Offer assistance to victim advocacy groups that provide counseling and support to children who have experienced domestic violence and sexual abuse.
John Jonchuck is the only person responsible for his daughter’s death, but we have to look at the bigger picture. We have to acknowledge that there are many layers to the epidemic of child abuse. When the U.S. leads Western nations in child homicide rates, something is deeply wrong. The cycle needs to be broken before abuse starts.
Remember Phoebe Jonchuck. Remember that more children like Phoebe desperately need help.