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.
In a pretrial hearing Monday, Jonchuck’s three public defenders listened as Pinellas County Circuit Judge Chris Helinger announced the proceedings would begin Feb. 5, 2018, roughly three years after Jonchuck inexplicably threw Phoebe Jonchuck off the Dick Misener Bridge, according to the Times.
The case had been anticipated to begin in fall, and the attorneys from the state attorney’s office requested such, but the judge took into account treatment regimen at a state mental health hospital located in Gainesville, where he is given medicinal injections for bipolar disorder every 28 days, agencies reported.
Jonchuck was not present at Monday’s hearing, said a public information officer working for the courts. He is charged with first-degree murder.
Assistant Public Defender Jessica Manuele said her team needed more time for pretrial preparations, like depositions, the Times reported, and to speak with their client, with whom they have not had any contact in roughly two years.
The defendant was found competent to stand trial in early March.
The narrative has been that on the night of Jan. 8, 2015, Jonchuck’s white PT Cruiser was spotted speeding in traffic by an off-duty St. Petersburg police officer. Jonchuck raced to the bridge, stopping his car in traffic at a point on the bridge, taking his daughter from the car.
He reportedly held her tightly, the officer — who tried to rush and assist the girl, Phoebe — before Jonchuck held her over the railing and let go.
The crime shook area residents, prompting the Department of Children and Families to review their emergency call procedures.
In an unexpected move, legislators merged two bills into one rather than unnecessarily compete against one another in a common goal to create a coordinated effort to enlist better medical services for abused children Monday.
Both bills related to child protection issues. SB 1454, sponsored by Sen. Doug Broxson, and SB 1318, sponsored by Sen. Rene Garcia, were so similar in nature they decided to join them together in the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee.
“It’s an excellent move to get people who want serve and expand the pool of doctors we have available for these services,” Broxson said after Garcia deferred to him. “It also codifies department of health treatment abuse services into law, which has been a practice for some time.”
It gives doctors two years to comply. It adds the statewide medical director for child protection as an official who must be consulted in the screening, employment, and termination of child protection team medical director statewide.
It requires the children’s medical services program within the Department of Health to convene a task force to develop a standardized protocol for forensic interviews of children suspected of being abused.
It also changes service districts as service circuits, and district medical directors as child protection team medical directors.
It would require that each child protection team medical director be a licensed physician and board-certified in specified specialty area.
Additionally, would require the department’s Children’s Medical Services program to develop, maintain, and coordinate the services of one or more sexual abuse treatment programs.
The committee voted unanimously in favor of the bill.
“We want a uniform system, so that no matter what district we are in we will not have made a mistake … and this is a good way of doing that,” Broxson said.
Part of a psychological evaluation administered to Naika Venant in June 2015 included a sentence completion test.
For the beginning stem sentence “The thing I want to do most of all is …” the then-12-year-old girl responded: “Die happy.”
Sentence tests can provide indications of attitudes, beliefs, motivations or other mental states.
Other sentences she finished: “My best friend is … I don’t have a best friend.” “The person I’m most afraid of is … nobody.” “I would do anything to forgot the time that … I made my mom cry.”
Among 3,523 pages of records recently released by the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) about Venant’s history in the child welfare system — and her life — are details about that June 2015 evaluation, carried out by Dr. Terilee Wunderman.
(The trove of documents were only made public after The Miami Herald fought in a court of law to have them released and did not include a DCF rapid response report already public.)
The psychologist goes on to note that Naika was depressed, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety and that her diagnosis for attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder by an earlier therapist was “not entirely appropriate” at the time.
Wunderman said, “there is much concern that her attention problems are due to anxiety and trauma rather than true ADHD symptomology.”
Because of that, her recommendation was to “re-evaluate” the 10 mg of Adderall Naika was prescribed due to the child’s already existing depression since one of the drug’s side effects is depression, “and Naika is coping with considerable depression related to her traumas … another regimen might better address her emotional difficulties,” it said on page 97 in the third installment of a final review of her foster care records.
She had, indeed, been through several traumas to that point. Naika was repeatedly molested and raped by another adolescent boy, 15, also a foster child, in a home with several other foster children, from April to December 2009 — when she was 7. She was Baker Acted once. She had endured physical abuse and had been exposed to sexually explicit material, and had inappropriately become sexualized at a young age.
In Jan. 2009, her biological mother arrived home to find a 4-year-old girl performing oral sex on Naika. Her mother beat her with a belt, leaving roughly 30 lashing marks all over her body — Naika then went into the foster care system, only to be raped by the 15-yr-old foster boy months later.
Her father was absent from her life and her mother struggled to keep the electric on when they were living together.
In all, Naika spent 16 months in foster care three different times, being placed in 14 different homes in the last nine months of her life, four alone in October 2016.
Less than a week before her mother finally gave up custody of Naika, her medication was ramped up.
By May 2016, she was taking 50 mg of Vyvanse, an Adderall generic. Another prescription had been added by Dr. Alon Seifan, page 110 notes on the third part of the final evaluation of her DCF foster care records: 25 mg of Sertraline, or Zoloft, a so-called ‘black-box warning’ drug. The designation comes from the Food and Drug Administration and is given to those pharmaceuticals deemed potentially hazardous.
A rapid response report issued by DCF March 8 stated in ‘Finding A’ of the organizational assessment of Our Kids and CFCE said that “the child welfare professionals involved in this case were highly experienced and well prepared to perform their responsibilities; and while overall caseloads across the case management agency were slightly elevated, it did not have an impact in this specific circumstance.”
Case managers have the option to seek a second consultation after a first consultation when medication is prescribed for a child under their care. It is unknown if the CFCE case manager or case manager’s supervisor considered a second medical opinion on this matter. CBCs follow the same directives as DCF investigators throughout the state as dictated by Statute 39 of Florida’s judicial branch.
Jessica Sims, spokeswoman for DCF, said medicating a child was an issue that fell under the domain of parents, legal guardians or a court.
“The department does not prescribe medication,” Sims said by email Friday. “Only medical professionals, not child welfare employees, are responsible for the prescription of medication and informed consent must be obtained from a parent/legal guardian or the court. DCF does not determine what medication children take.
FloridaPolitics.com reached out to both Our Kids and CFCE for comment, but did not immediately receive a response before the publishing of this article.
It’s important to note because, on page 118 of Part 3 of the final review of Naika’s foster care records, Seifon made hand-written notes that Zoloft could induce “suicidal ideations” while Vyvanse’s potential side effect could be “sleep disturbance.
A question on the form asked how long the medications were to be prescribed. Seifon wrote, “indefinite.”
If a case manager had questioned any of this, they could have sought a second psychiatric/medical opinion based on both Seifon’s and Wunderman’s recommendations for and against prescriptions for Naika.
She hung herself in the bathroom of her final foster home in the middle of the night Jan. 22. (Her biological mother, Gina Alexis, had been made aware of the unfolding situation via a flurry of text messages, but she had no idea what address her daughter was at in the city if Miami Gardens.)
Seifon checked the “no” box on page 120 to a question on the same form documenting the psychotropic mix he was prescribing the child that asked, “Are there other treatment options available in lieu of administering the psychotropic medications recommended above?”
That was April 26, 2016.
By Dec. 8, Dr. Scott Segal doubled the Zoloft dosage to 50 mg daily and raised the Vyvanse back to 50 mg after it had been reduced to 30 mg.
A month and a half later Naika was dead.
FloridaPolitics.com attempted to reach Segal for comment, but he did not respond before the publishing of this article.
Naika’s case hauntingly parallels that of Gabriel Myers, who hung himself in the bathroom of his foster parent’s home in April 2009. Myers, who had been sexually molested, was also prescribed medication. He was 7 years old. His father was in an Ohio prison, and his mother was reported found unconscious in her car with drugs openly on display around her, which is how Myers wound up in foster care.
The Myers incident shook Florida’s child welfare system to its core and a special panel was formed to seek a way to better improve care for Florida’s foster children.
“Key initiatives from the Gabriel Myers Work Group were implemented and have been further improved over time,” Sims said. “The department’s office of child welfare recently organized a multidisciplinary review team that conducted more research on the procedures surrounding the prescription of psychotropic medication by physicians for children in care, and are exploring additional avenues of systemic improvement. Also, the CIRRT regarding this case outlined the need for enhanced coordination of care by providers and behavioral health professionals to ensure information is appropriately shared for the most effective level of care to be provided.”
But it goes beyond that, according to Howard M. Talenfeld, an attorney specializing in child welfare.
He told FloridaPolitics.com there aren’t enough therapeutic homes within Florida’s privatized child welfare structure to place children in with a complex set of problems, as was the case with Naika.
“Many children in foster care have serious behavioral problems resulting from the traumas of their abuse, removal from their natural parents, and then the further trauma of bouncing from one placement to the next,” Talenfeld, also the president of Florida Children First, said by email Thursday. “In many cases, foster children are medicated and chemically restrained after appropriate placements, and therapeutic interventions are not made available to address the needs of these children by the private agencies responsible for their care.”
It’s a catastrophe that has repeated itself over and over, he said.
The attorney is currently providing Naika’s mother, Alexis, with advice, but is not representing her because he doesn’t counsel on behalf of adults.
He said Our Kids, which is subcontracted by DCF, handles home placements while CFCE, subcontracted by Our Kids, oversees the case management of those placements.
Dr. James Sewell, a retired assistant commissioner of the Florida Dept. of Law Enforcement and child welfare consultant, was a member of the Gabriel Myers Work Group in 2009.
He said it was his understanding there were still significantly fewer therapeutic homes available to place children with specialized mental health or behavioral needs into for Florida’s foster children.
He agreed Naika’s case disturbingly resembled that of Gabriel in several ways, particularly the link between foster children with complex issues and the coupling of medication.
“He was too frequently shuffled from place to place,” Sewell by phone Friday. “All too frequently we put them on psychotropics because it’s easier for the schools or parents than really dealing with the problem. … We don’t adequately prepare caregivers or foster parents with enough resources to effectively deal with them.”
Another part of the problem, he said, was that DCF is underfunded with a large staff — currently about 13,000 — and the pay scales for that personnel are not competitive.
“(They) don’t pay worth a damn and the old adage, ‘You get what you pay for,’ is true here,” he said, referring to the state’s salary rate for DCF employees. “We need to make sure that the folks who are dealing with our children are the best and the brightest, and the most skilled.”
A sub-contracted case manager with the Florida Department of Children and Families was arrested for falsifying information regarding the well-being of children living alone, officials confirmed Thursday.
Spokespeople for both DCF and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement confirmed Vanessa Arias, 33, was arrested Friday for lying on safety reports.
“The department has no tolerance for any individual compromising their integrity and, thereby, potentially jeopardizing the safety of a child,” Jessica Sims, a spokeswoman for DCF, told FloridaPolitics.com by email. “We immediately investigated Ms. Arias upon receiving these allegations and referred this case to law enforcement soon after.”
Arias is accused of knowingly stating erroneous information in records she had visited the home of five children in Kissimmee, roughly 22 miles south of Orlando, when in reality she had not, and further, didn’t return more than a dozen phone calls made from one of the children trying to notify her of their plight.
Lying on child welfare records is a felony offense in the state of Florida. She was booked into the Osceola County Jail, according to FDLE.
“One of the children said Arias was last in the home just after Thanksgiving of 2014,” the Orlando Sentinel reported, citing a report by FDLE Special Agent Stephen A. Brenton. “She stopped by and dropped off some Christmas cards in early December, but ‘stayed in the car because she did not like the roaches in the home.’”
The mother of the children was there only “sporadically,” a child told police. Officials confirmed the mother had been arrested for child abuse and neglect.
But Arias claimed on her Jan. 8 safety check report the children were “free from any visible signs of abuse/neglect with all their basic needs being met at this time.”
A statement by FDLE said a child made 16 phone calls to Arias in the home between Dec. 2014 and Jan. 2015, but none were returned. A single candle was being used to provide “light and heat to the children,” the statement said, due to the electricity being shut off.
FDLE agents finally responded to the home on Jan. 18 after receiving notice from DCF.
DCF subcontracts referrals in the Orlando area to Community Based Care of Central Florida, who are the lead community-based care agency – commonly referred to as a ‘CBC’ under Florida’s privatized child welfare parlance – over Orange, Seminole, and Osceola counties. Community Based Care of Central Florida, in turn, subcontracts out the case management to GCJFCS, a common practice with the CBCs throughout the state.
The investigation into Arias is ongoing, according to DCF spokeswoman Sims, who said a report would be released as soon as the inquiry concludes.
The Florida House advanced a bill that would allow school administrators to pray in public schools throughout the state if students initiate those prayers.
HB 303unanimously passed the House Education Committee Thursday. The measure would violate the decades-old federal provision separating church and state, and may likely be challenged at some point.
However, at the committee meeting in Tallahassee, there were no oppositional voices as the bill moved passed its second hurdle. The bill’s next stop is a vote on the House floor.
The only concern from members of the committee seemed to come from Rep. Rene Plasencia, who wondered if there was a provision to prevent “satanic” groups from being allowed to express their rights. Plasencia is a former teacher.
“We prayed in school in Orange County, but the problem was that a demonic group came to our school,” the lawmaker said. “Is there anything (in the bill) that prevents a satanic group from coming to a school?”
Rep. Kimberly Daniels, co-sponsor of the bill, said it didn’t, but cited that six other states in the country had passed such measures without incidents involving so-called satanic groups.
Conversely, a big concern from those in the public, was discrimination against Christianity. Several citizens addressed the committee, voicing their support for the measure, including special interest groups.
“We hope you can support this most wonderful bill,” said Shawn Frost, who was at the meeting representing the Florida Coalition of School Board Members.
Rep. Patricia Williams, a freshman legislator and co-sponsor of the bill, addressed committee members in closing the proposal.
“If we as legislators can pray if we want to, then why can’t our children?”
“It was Florida’s version of ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird,’” Sen. Gary Farmer said to the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday as he introduced his bill – SCR 920 – that would lead to the pardons of four men killed and accused of crimes they didn’t commit.
It was July 16, 1949, before dawn. Willie and Norma Padgett were out on a lonesome rural road in Lake County, Florida, northwest of Orlando, when the car they were in stalled.
They reportedly told police they’d been at a dance and were on their way home, even though it was very late. Four young black men — who lived in nearby Groveland, essentially a shack town for black s to live next to the orange groves they labored in — happened along and offered to lend a hand.
Sammy Shepherd and Walter Irvin, U.S. Army veterans who’d helped stave off fascism from taking over the world, were with buddies Charles Greenlee and Ernest Thomas. But something bad happened.
The four tried to tried to help, they later told police. The Padgett’s, white, had a different version. Willie told the cops the boys beat him up and stole their car, Norma riding shotgun. She had been raped, she told authorities.
All but Thomas were soon rounded up, with Thomas shot dead, egregiously, 200 miles north trying to get away.
That’s the way it was told then. But that wasn’t what happened – not all. Two of the accused were in Orlando at the time of the crime. Evidence was kept from defense showing the men weren’t guilty, an FBI investigation later discovered.
A jury found the three men guilty in just 90 minutes. But something didn’t smell right in Florida to the U.S. Attorney General in Washington. A new trial was ordered for Irvin and Shepherd on appeal. Unfortunately, Greenlee didn’t appeal.
When local Sheriff Willis V. McCall went to fetch the two to transport them to the trial venue, he had his own plans. He pulled over after picking them up, ordered them out of the car and shot both of them, reportedly bragging about it in his radio afterward. Irvin lived, even though he sustained another shot when the sheriff and a deputy discovered he was still alive. The sheriff had said the black men tried to overpower him, forcing him to shoot them.
Irvin lived for his next trial, telling his version of everything that had happened.
At the second trial, the legendary Thurgood Marshall, later a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, represented Irvin.
But the Florida jury still convicted Irvin. They gave him a death sentence.
Gov. LeRoy Collins later stayed the execution, commuting the sentence to life in prison in 1954.
Greenlee was paroled in 1962. Irvin was paroled in 1968.
McCall, who continued to be reelected, despite his corruption, was forced from office in 1973 after a black man died on his watch, having been kicked to death by deputies.
Sen. Farmer’s bill has one more committee hurdle to go before a vote in the Senate.
Orange County and state officials are making an example of a man who attempted to collect a bogus insurance claim on his car after reporting it stolen, accusing him of arson and insurance fraud.
Michael Abrams, 43, is now held on $50,000 bond in an Orange County detention facility, a statement said Wednesday.
Abrams is charged with arson, insurance fraud, filing a false insurance claim, false reports in the commission of a crime and grand theft by the Orange County state attorney’s office, Orange County records show. He stands accused of devising a plan to have his 2016 Toyota Camry stolen and destroyed so that he could collect an insurance payout totaling $10,000, the statement continues.
“More often than not, acts of arson are committed in order to collect insurance payouts or to cover up a larger crime,” saidFlorida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater. “To concoct the plan that he did is an elaborate act of fraud — one that undoubtedly drives up the cost of insurance for every Floridian. I’m proud of our investigative team for getting to the truth and putting this man behind bars where he belongs.”
In early December 2016, a crew from the Orange County Fire Rescue(OCFR) department responded to a vehicular fire. The car had previously reported stolen from New York state by Abrams.
Suspicious, a supervisor with OCFR reached out to the Florida State Fire Marshall’s Office to investigate the cause and origin of the fire and that’s when Abrams’ story didn’t add up.
After being questioned by investigators, he admitted paying another man $300 to destroy his car while he simultaneously reported it stolen.
Abrams admitted to also actively participating in the fire, which was interrupted when the fire and rescue crews were called to the scene of the crime.
“Upon confessing to an active role in the burning of his car and the filing of an unlawful insurance claim, Michael Abrams was arrested and charged with several felonies,” the statement said. “Abrams was booked into the Orange County Jail, bail was set at $50,000.”
He faces 20 years in prison if convicted.
Chief Financial Officer and State Fire Marshal Jeff Atwater, a statewide elected official, oversees the Department of Financial Services, serves as Florida’s State Fire Marshal, and is a member of the Florida Cabinet.
Atwater’s priorities include fighting financial fraud, abuse and waste in government; reducing government spending and regulatory burdens that chase away businesses, and providing transparency and accountability in spending.
America’s former domestic security chief believes Donald Trump may have the makings of a historic leader.
In an MSNBC interview Wednesday, previous U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Trump could be a “great president.”
However, Johnson expressed concern over the president’s affinity for social media and worried he didn’t have a full staff in place yet to appropriately advise him on matters of national security.
“I actually believe Donald Trump has the potential to be a great president in sort of the ‘Nixon goes to China’ way or ‘Reagan goes to the Soviet Union’ way,” Johnson told host Willie Geiston MSNBC’s show, ‘Morning Joe.’ “If he can find a way to rein in some of — some of the more unhealthy impulses, listen to his staff, bring on a full complement of political appointees, who will help him govern.”
He continued: “And I’m very concerned about the tweets, obviously. And very concerned about the direction we’re taking in a lot of — in a lot of national security areas.”
In an exclusive interview with the TV cable-news network, Johnson also addressed the recent ban on devices larger than cell phones on flights emanating from more than a dozen Muslim countries to the U.S., enacted by DHS and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
”It’s a little unfair in this context to refer to this as a ban on electronics coming from Muslim-majority countries,” he said. “We look at where the direct flights are coming from, we look at the security around the airports, and we make the appropriate judgments. And this judgment was almost certainly a judgment made at the TSA, DHS, Intelligence Community level.”
The move has been viewed as a controversial and is being challenged.
Gov. Rick Scott will lead a delegation of representatives from small- to midsized Florida businesses on an export trade mission to Argentina in April.
The trip will be to boost business relations between the state and the South American nation, a spokesman with Enterprise Florida said Wednesday.
Scott’s visit will be from April 23-27 and will begin in Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital. It is being coordinated by the U.S. Embassy in Argentina, Florida’s fourth-largest global export destination with an estimated $3.3 billion worth of exports in 2015 alone.
“Florida is the gateway to Latin America and with more than 60,000 exporting businesses,” Scott said in a statement. “Enterprise Florida provides the platform for growing Florida companies to take their products to expanding markets worldwide. We look forward to expanding our trade relationship with Argentina and growing Florida’s business presence in Latin America.”
Manny Mencia, Enterprise Florida’s senior vice president of international trade and development, will be accompanying Scott on the trip.
“This mission will increase opportunities for the small businesses traveling with us,” Mencia said in the statement. “Since the election of President Mauricio Macri, Argentina has rebuilt its relationship with the U.S. The Argentina market will offer excellent opportunities for Florida companies in the years to come, and this mission will allow them to connect with new partners and clients looking to purchase U.S. products and services.”
With a population of 41.5 million people and a gross domestic product of approximately $609 billion, Argentina offers excellent opportunities for Florida companies interested in increasing their footprint in the Southern Cone. The United States is Argentina’s third largest trading partner. U.S. goods and services trade with Argentina totaled an estimated $22.4 billion in 2015; making Argentina the U.S.’s 28th largest goods export market in 2015, according to the announcement on the Florida Enterprise website.
Florida companies seeking to participate can still register and access all mission networking events, airport transfers in the country when traveling on official mission flights, and ground transportation to mission events.
Pinellas County Commissioner John Morroni announced Tuesday he would be vacating his seat next year, reports the Tampa Bay Times.
The 25-year veteran politician served roughly 18 years on the Commission and, before that, another seven in Florida’s House of Representatives. Morroni said he would not be a candidate for a fifth term on the board, wrote the Times.
Twice elected as a state lawmaker, Morroni served from 1992-2000. From 1993-1994 he was the chair of the Pinellas County Legislative Delegation. In 2000, he was elected to Pinellas County Commission, District 6, in 2000 and was re-elected. He served as chair in 2005, 2012 and 2015, according to the commission’s website.
“This is the right decision for me,” Morroni, 62, told the Times. “It’s time for me to let someone else sit in this chair.”
Current appointments he serves on include the Affirmative Action Committee, Forward Pinellas, of which he is the chair, and the Value Adjustment Board.
FloridaPolitics.com reached out to Morroni late Tuesday for comment, but did not immediately receive a response before publication.
The Times also said his decision came about six months after the politician was given the all-clear by his doctors “after being diagnosed with a rare bone marrow disorder. He beat two earlier bouts of cancer,” the article said.
However, the commissioner said at the Tuesday meeting where he announced his plans his health did not factor into his decision to step down in 2018.