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Tears for Little Phoebe

Phoebe Jonchuck, age 5, is dead. Dropped over the Skyway Bridge by her own father as a St. Petersburg police officer watched in horror.

This was a preventable death. Not by the horrified police officer, but by the Hillsborough County civil courts and perhaps the child welfare system. There were several incidents of domestic violence, including an Injunction for Protection taken out on John Jonchuck. The Injunction was later dropped at the Mom’s request. This is also typical behavior of a victim whose abuser says he didn’t mean it.

He was a ticking time bomb, but we still decided to award him custody because Mom had her problems. Why is it that beating a child’s Mom still doesn’t mean to the courts that he is a danger to the child? What were we thinking?

Typical of the behavior of an abuser, he later took out an Injunction for Protection against Phoebe’s mom, Michele Kerr. Stricken with MS and having her own problems, the court still decided to award custody to a father who was known to have committed domestic violence - not once, but several times. What were we thinking?

CASA works with thousands of domestic violence victims every year. We receive an average of 800 police reports monthly from the police departments in just south county below Ulmerton Rd. By the time domestic violence is reported to the police by the neighbors or a child or a desperate woman, it is too late. Domestic violence has most likely occurred many times in this family, even though this may be the first time it was reported publicly.

Because domestic violence victims often protect their abusers, we created a civil injunction for protection, sometimes known as a restraining order, so the victim can report the abuse without police involvement. For some victims, this provides some protections. Other victims choose not to take out an Injunction for fear that the abuser will become even more enraged.

We have a long history with abusers. We know their patterns. We know their behaviors. They are almost predictable. Yet every day, we face a court that handles each case at face value as though this is the first incident, as though this has never happened before, as though a history of domestic violence is not relevant, as though the terror she evidences in front of a judge is made up, as though she is telling lies.

The gender bias in our systems still punishes moms more for drinking, taking drugs and other behaviors that she shares with the father.  The court thinks the child would be worse off with the mother. After all, she allowed herself to be beaten in front of the children, didn’t she?  Some of her behaviors are unacceptable. She may need help. She may also be doing the best she can living with an abuser who forces her drink and take drugs. She may be doing the best she can to cope with an intolerable situation with no apparent way out.

Meanwhile, while the system fails to acknowledge what is going on with mom, we let Phoebe Jonchuck, five years old, die. Our hearts are broken in two for Phoebe, for the officer who had to watch and for the mom whose family we couldn’t save.

By Linda Osmundson, CASA's Executive Director

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