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DCF roundup: Jonchuck competent, victims compensation bill, minor left alone by DCF-contractor, burns on toddler’s back & 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.

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A birthday card for the unofficial, undisputed queen of Tallahassee

(PUBLISHER’S NOTE: Rosanne Dunkelberger is President of Dunkelberger Consulting, Editor-at-Large for Extensive Enterprises, and formerly editor of Tallahassee Magazine.)

It’s a Milestone Birthday for Rosanne Dunkelberger, and her kids have asked millennials she’s mentored and friends who knew her before she was an award-winning magazine editor to tell them what we remember most about the Unofficial Undisputed Queen of Tallahassee.

To the Geritol Generation of media lawyers who knew Rosanne in the disco era when she worked as staff director for The Florida Bar’s Committee on Media and Communications Law, she’s the woman who did all the work that we got all the credit.

Back then, the Bar’s annual Media Law Conference was a signature event. Hundreds of lawyers, judges and journalists attended to engage with and learn from speakers of statewide and national prominence.  For years, the Conference commanded the personal attention of the Bar President, who hosted a pre-conference dinner, usually in his home, where Bar leaders built significant and sustained relationships with media and political leaders, and nobody ever dreamed there’d come a time when the legislature would set about to castrate the courts.

Rosanne’s larger-than-life work ethic, and her genius at conjuring pleasant settings for meaningful conversations, helped to create and to nurture countless relationships that operated above and below the radar, and always in the public interest.

The Conference was funded in large part by underwriting from law firms and news organizations. With big money and bigger egos involved, there were opportunities aplenty for disaster. Rosanne’s extraordinary talent at wrangling donors; massaging egos, and arranging place cards were at the center of many of the Bar’s greatest conference hits.

Rosanne was also instrumental in creating a new “Florida Bar product,” the Reporter’s Workshop, an invitation-only seminar aimed at print and broadcast journalists who were new to the legal beat. One has only to look at the agendas for the programs she staffed to see the outstanding quality of their design and execution.

Rosanne is one of those very rare people who does not have a mean, selfish, or self-aggrandizing bone in her body. She makes any #Process better, just by being in it.

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Report: Florida is number 1 state for higher education

New rankings released by U.S. News and World Report say Florida is the number one state in the nation for higher education.

The Sunshine State got the top ranking because of several factors, including the state’s relatively low tuition rates for colleges and universities.

Florida also had a high ranking because more than half of students seeking a two-year degree graduated either on time or within three years.

Gov. Rick Scott and others heralded the new rankings, which are coming at a time when the Florida Senate is considering pushing through changes to the state’s higher education system. Senate leaders want to boost spending on student financial aid and provide more money for college faculty.

State University System Chancellor Marshall Criser III said the rankings were an “inspiration” to push for a better, stronger system.
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Judge threatens to jail DCF lawyer in Facebook Live hanging case

A judge threatened to jail a Florida Department of Children & Families lawyer, suggesting the agency’s attorneys lied about the welfare of foster children who may have witnessed a teen hang herself while broadcasting on Facebook.

Miami-Dade Judge Maria Sampedro-Iglesia said regional child welfare director Clarissa Cabreja could be arrested if she doesn’t appear at a March 8 hearing.

Spokeswoman Jessica K. Sims says the agency “fully intends to comply.”

The Miami Herald reports the order follows a back-and-forth between the agency and the judge, who requested information about foster children living in the home Jan. 22 when 14-year-old Naika Venant died. She wanted to make sure they received proper counseling.

In her Tuesday order, the judge said the court “is very concerned about the welfare and safety” of the children living in the Miami Gardens foster home.

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Space entrepeneur Robert Bigelow: ‘We stand ready’ to send station to the moon

Bigelow Aerospace founder Robert Bigelow believes existing technology, NASA interest, and business opportunities are ready now for a return to the moon — and his company is ready to provide a space station there.

In an exclusive interview with FloridaPolitics.com Wednesday, the Las Vegas-based billionaire space entrepreneur made the argument that there already exists the technology, the opportunities for scientific research, a clear business case, and at least some NASA interest, for a return to the moon.

And he said his company has ongoing conversations with NASA and key rocket companies to make that happen quickly — by 2020.

Whether or not NASA wants to go back, there are private companies eager to mine the moon.

Bigelow’s company is eager to put a space station depot in lunar orbit, from which such activities and others can be initiated, as well as support onboard research.

“We do not have the technologies, and there is zero business case for Mars. We do have a business case for the moon. And that’s why the moon absolutely makes the best sense,” Bigelow said. “And we can do the lunar activities far sooner than we can with Mars, which stretches out to, NASA’s views are Mars may be in the 2040s.”

His “New Space” company, Bigelow Aerospace of Las Vegas, designs space habitats, including a fully self-contained space station with 330 cubic meters of living and working space, which he said is ready for a lower-Earth orbit or, in about three years given the expected advancements in rocketry, for lunar orbit.

Bigelow Aerospace is marketing its B330 station for combined use by astronauts representing private industry research and commercial exploration, NASA, pure science research, and space tourism. He would not disclose how much a B330 would cost but said it would be nowhere near reported estimates of $500 million.

Bigelow said he is picking up President Donald Trump signals that he wants to see something exciting happening with NASA in his first term, and Bigelow believes that is a signal to those inside NASA to start thinking moon again.

In his address to the joint session of Congress Tuesday, Trump made a vague reference to “American footprints on distant worlds.” Earlier reports citing unnamed administrative sources, according to SpaceNews.com and other industry news operations, said Trump was interested in NASA taking on bold initiatives right away.

And any time a new president takes office, NASA’s missions all go on the table.

Bigelow Aerospace has been working up the lunar plans for years. After hearing Trump’s speech, he decided to promote them on Twitter Wednesday morning.

When FloridaPolitics.com called for elaboration, he returned the call.

“In view of President Trump’s initiative in trying to make something happen here in the next four years, which obviously a big challenge if you want to do something meaningful, we think this is doable,” Bigelow said. “We think if America deploys a lunar depot, that is going to speak volumes. That is going to have a significant effect, because you don’t really have to land something on the moon to let people know you have lunar plans.”

Bigelow said his company had ongoing conversations with NASA for about three years about the prospect of Bigelow-manufactured depots assisting the space agency’s plans, whether it is to prepare for a Mars mission or a return to the moon.

NASA has been noncommittal. Bigelow said his company also has concepts for moon surface bases.

“NASA is looking to see what it is President Trump is ready to do. So we stand ready as a company, as do others, to get on board and try to make things happen,” he said.

That will require two technological advances, but both are in the works. And it would involve business deals that have nothing to do with NASA — just space companies selling their services to each other.

There currently are no rockets with the room inside to carry a B330.

However, United Launch Alliance is redesigning its Atlas V rocket with a much bigger payload fairing, under the design known as the Atlas 552.

Last year, ULA and Bigelow signed an agreement to launch a B330 on the first Atlas 552 flight, in 2020.

That would get the private space station into lower Earth orbit. To get a B330 to the moon will require another set of boosters. Enter the ULA’s “Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage” boosters, refuelable, reusable boosters that could be put in orbit, then reused. They also should be available around then. Two of them could be attached to a B330 already in Earth’s orbit, and carry it to the moon, Bigelow said.

Finally, there is the matter of getting astronauts onboard.

The B330 is designed to have long-term, live-in astronauts, or to sit there and wait for occasional visitors. It houses up to six.

Earlier this week, SpaceX announced its plans to start sending private citizen astronauts around the moon by the end of 2018.

“I checked with SpaceX. They said ‘Yes! We would be ready, willing, able and very interested in providing capsule transportation for crew and cargo to that location,” he said. “At the same time, if the Lockheed Orion were on schedule and ready to launch with the SLS we are incorporating the possibility that both of those other programs, the Boeing SLS and the Lockheed Orion.

“There is something potentially in there for everybody,” Bigelow said.

And it could do something for NASA justification. America’s space agency is spending tens of billions of dollars to develop Lockheed’s deep-space Orion capsule and the next-generation SLS rocket, which is being created by several space companies, including Boeing.

But NASA has not quite figured out what to do with them.

Eventually, the rocket and capsule would be used for Mars missions. Until then, they’re to be used for missions to prepare for Mars.

NASA planned an asteroid mission, but that had significant opposition in Congress, and the space agency has been reassessing. NASA has not planned a moon mission, but there is some advocacy for that in Congress, and perhaps in the Trump administration.

NASA has argued the SLS and Orion could go any place in the solar system, but hasn’t actually identified any place else to go.

If the SLS and Orion were programmed to bring astronauts and supplies to a lunar space station, Bigelow argued: “It really gives the Orion and the SLS a legitimate mission. That is something that is badly needed, of course.”

“Two transportation systems and a depot would be extremely valuable and important for the next round of lunar activities,” he said.

Bigelow Aerospace’s business plan is for its space stations to be marketed much like a time share. Researchers, business interests, tourists, NASA or any other government space agency would book time. Whatever time they want to pay for.

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Young ‘Moonlight’ stars return from Oscars to middle school

Seventh-graders Alex Hibbert and Jaden Piner returned to middle school Wednesday as Oscar winners, but the “Moonlight” stars still had to go back to basics with their classmates in drama class.

At Norland Middle School, they followed acting teacher Tanisha Cidel‘s directions to crawl on the floor like lions and recite the tongue-twister “red leather, yellow leather” faster and faster.

Drama teacher Tanisha Cidel, left rear, instructs students to be a lion as Alex Hibbert, left foreground, 12, crawls on the floor during drama class at Norland Middle School, Wednesday, March 1, 2017, in Miami Gardens, Fla. Cidel, Hibbert and another student acted in Oscar winning film “Moonlight.” The film garnered three Oscars Sunday night, including the award for best picture. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Cidel played a principal in the film that also won Oscars for best supporting actor and best adapted screenplay.

“The key here is not to pretend,” she told her students. “The key here is to be real. Honest.”

Drama teacher Tanisha Cidel speaks about her and two of her student’s rolls in the Academy Award winning film “Moonlight,” during a news conference at Norland Middle School, Wednesday, March 1, 2017, in Miami Gardens, Fla. The film garnered three Oscars Sunday night, including the award for best picture. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

In the communities where “Moonlight” was filmed, the movie has been lauded this week for its honest representation of life in black Miami, long overshadowed by the city’s glitzy hotels and hipster neighborhoods.

Writer-director Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose play “Moonlight” is based on, both grew up in the Liberty City streets and schools depicted on screen.

“It shows that Liberty City is not really a bad place and you can’t judge it by the news,” 12-year-old Alex said. “When you watch ‘Moonlight,’ you find the beauty of Liberty City.”

Drama teacher Tanisha Cidel, center, laughs with two of her students, Jaden Piner, left, 13, and Alex Hibbert, right, 12, as they head to drama class at Norland Middle School, Wednesday, March 1, 2017, in Miami Gardens, Fla. The three acted in Oscar winning film “Moonlight.” The film garnered three Oscars Sunday night, including the award for best picture. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

“Moonlight” follows the life of a young black man — played as a child by Alex — as he grows up in poverty and comes to terms with his own homosexuality. Jaden plays his classmate.

Thirteen-year-old Jaden said he could relate to his character’s desire to help a friend, but Alex said the bullying his character suffers fortunately wasn’t something he had experienced.

Jaden Piner, left, 13, and Alex Hibbert, right, 12, run through a drill in which they must show a range of emotions during drama class at Norland Middle School, Wednesday, March 1, 2017, in Miami Gardens, Fla. The two acted in the Oscar winning film “Moonlight.” The film garnered three Oscars Sunday night, including the award for best picture. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Both boys said they figured it was a joke when the audience was belatedly told the top award went to “Moonlight” and not “La La Land.” In the confusion, they had to jump over other audience members to join the rest of their cast onstage.

“I jumped over this guy, and he was screaming, ‘What the –?’ and I was like, ‘I’m sorry, I just won an award!'” Alex said.

An Oscars highlight for both boys: meeting “The Amazing Spider-Man” actor Andrew Garfield.

Jaden Piner, left, 13, corrects his name on a whiteboard mentioning him and Alex Hibbert, right, 12, for being at the Academy Awards for their part in “Moonlight,” as they attend drama class at Norland Middle School, Wednesday, March 1, 2017, in Miami Gardens, Fla. The film garnered three Oscars Sunday night, including the award for best picture. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Jaden said “Moonlight” ”shows Miami kids are talented not only in sports.”

Alex said he’ll next act in a television series in Chicago, starting in April.

Alex, Jaden and their teacher walked down a “red carpet'” taped to a classroom floor to talk with reporters, but they weren’t alone in the limelight: About a dozen other Norland students had roles as extras in the film.

A sign outside Norland Middle School congratulates the Academy Award winning film “Moonlight,” which included performances by two of its students and their drama teacher, Wednesday, March 1, 2017, in Miami Gardens, Fla. The film garnered three Oscars Sunday night, including the award for best picture. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Cidel said her students shouldn’t be the only ones inspired by the movie’s success.

“I want the parents to understand that if your child has any talent or shows an interest in the arts, take it seriously,” she said.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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Florida Power & Light building eight new solar plants

Florida Power & Light announced Wednesday it would roll out eight new solar power plants across the state over the next year.

“With the support of communities across the state, we are advancing smart, affordable clean energy infrastructure while keeping customer bills low,” said Eric Silagy, FPL president and CEO. “On a per-megawatt basis, these eight new plants will be the lowest-cost solar ever built in Florida and some of the lowest-cost solar ever built in America. Our steadfast commitment to delivering solar cost-effectively directly benefits our customers, our environment and the economy.”

FPL expects plants in Alachua, Putnam, Indian River and DeSoto counties to be completed by the end of 2017, with plants in Brevard, Hendry, St. Lucie counties and a second plant in Indian River County scheduled to come online by March 1, 2018.

The company said the new plants will cost $900 million to build and will use 2.5 million solar panels.  Once completed, FPL said the plants will generate enough energy to power about 120,000 homes, saving customers an estimated $39 million over their lifetime.

The plan was lauded by environmental groups The Nature Conservatory and Audubon Florida, and also earned praise from economic development agencies and local politicians from the areas where the plants are being built.

“An additional eight new solar energy centers is a major step toward reducing carbon emissions and saving water, benefitting the earth and all Floridians,” said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida.

The new plants will generate 596 megawatt hours, more than doubling FPL’s current solar output, and will prevent about 525,000 tons of carbon emissions a year – the equivalent of the emissions from 100,000 cars.

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Face-biter said he fled demon-like figure before killings

A Florida college student accused of randomly killing a couple in their garage and chewing on the dead man’s face told television psychologist Phil McGraw he was fleeing a demon-like figure named Daniel and only had a vague recollection of the slayings.

In a 22-minute interview released Tuesday by prosecutors, Austin Harrouff said he lost his wits as he walked back to his father’s home after storming out of a restaurant where they had an argument.

McGraw asked about “the devil talking to you,” and Harrouff went on to describe a “dark figure” he called Daniel.

“I got scared out of my mind,” Harrouff told McGraw, who interviewed him by computer when the former high school wrestler and football player was still hospitalized last fall.

Harrouff, 20, was arrested upon release from the hospital for the Aug. 15 deaths of John Stevens, a 59-year-old landscaper, and his wife, Michelle Mishcon, 53. Both had been beaten and stabbed. He could face the death penalty if convicted of murder.

The interview, which is now evidence in the case, was scheduled to air on McGraw’s “Dr. Phil” show last Oct. 28 but was pulled at the last minute without explanation. Prosecutors released it without comment after NBC affiliate WPTV hired lawyers to seek its release under the state’s public information law.

His defense team said the video is yet more evidence showing the deterioration of his mental health, but criticized its release as prejudicial. “Sensationalizing the details of this case pre-trial does nothing to advance justice in the courtroom,” attorney Nellie King said in the statement.

Harrouff, a bodybuilder who majored in exercise science at Florida State University, said he stripped off most of his clothes as he tried to run away from Daniel. McGraw asked what he was thinking.

“I just need to find someone to help me, to figure out where I am,” said Harrouff, speaking in a steady, even voice as his father, dentist Wade Harrouff, stood just off camera. “I don’t even remember what I said to myself. I just remember being afraid, scared.”

He said he doesn’t remember how he came face-to-face with Mishcon in the couple’s garage. He said she screamed, and “then it’s a blur.”

“I don’t remember what she said – I just remember being yelled at,” Harrouff said. He said he grabbed a machete he found in their garage, but doesn’t remember why he killed her and her husband.

“It’s like it happened but I wasn’t aware of it at the time,” Harrouff said, crying. “I don’t know, I don’t know. If I knew, I would tell you.”

Harrouff said he drank something he found in the garage after the attack. He refused to say what it was, but it severely burned his esophagus. He denied ever using steroids or hallucinogenic drugs such as flakka or bath salts. None showed up in his blood tests.

When sheriff’s deputies arrived, they found Harrouff on top of Stevens, chewing his face. It took numerous deputies, jolts from an electric stun gun and bites from a police dog to pull him off. They said they didn’t shoot Harrouff because they feared hitting Stevens.

McGraw ended the interview by promising to work with Harrouff’s father to learn why he snapped.

“You keep hanging in there and we are going to look for answers,” McGraw told him.

Harrouff’s family has said he had been acting strange for weeks before the attack.

His mother, Mina Harrouff, told police he claimed to have superpowers and that he had been sent to help people. She said his bed had been moved to the garage because he thought there were demons in the house, and that a few hours before the attack, she stopped him from drinking cooking oil from the bottle, only to find him eating a bowl of cooking oil and cheese.

Republished with the permission of The Associated Press.

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Florida foster parent charged in death of toddler weeks away from adoption

A woman has been charged with first-degree murder in the death of a 17-month-old toddler in Riverview, according to court records and media reports Tuesday.

In addition to the murder charge, Latamara Stackhouse Flythe was also charged with aggravated child abuse against Aedyn Agminalis, who died Dec. 11 after he was rushed to St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital, the Tampa Bay Times reports, which also said the toddler was likely due for adoption in a matter of weeks by a North Carolina couple.

Court records show Flythe was employed by Children’s Home Network as a marketing and communications manager. A Door of Hope, which is a subcontractor of Eckerd Kids — the agency that runs child welfare services in Hillsborough County, was the approving authority that ultimately led to Aedyn coming into her home. Both agencies are ultimately subcontracted by the Florida Dept. of Children and Families (DCF), which oversees most child welfare investigations.

Child death investigations are handled by the state’s Health and Human Services department.

Florida began a controversial transition into privatizing its child welfare system in the early to mid-2000s.

A spokesperson with Eckerd Kids — which is also known by other names like Eckerd Community Alternatives — said employees were heartbroken over the news of Aedyn’s death.

“We recently learned that the death of Aedyn has prompted an arrest of the foster parent responsible for his care,” Adrienne Drew, spokeswoman for Eckerd, told FloridaPolitics.com by email Tuesday. “We are fully committed to working with all authorities as the case progresses.”

Aedyn, who had been taken from his parents’ custody by a child welfare detective assigned to the Child Protection Investigations Division of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office after the responding investigator noticed feces on the floor and a hookah pipe — often used for decoration in the West but commonly used to smoke Egyptian shisha tobacco throughout the Middle East, not hashish, as is mistakenly thought among Westerners — in the home, the Times report noted.

(Hillsborough County is one of six counties out of 67 in the state where the sheriff’s offices lead investigations into child welfare cases, rather than DCF — five of them are in the Greater Tampa Bay area.)

 It wasn’t clear whether the pipe had been used at all or only for tobacco, or for drugs.

“Eckerd Kids’ Subcontracted Child Placing Agency (A Door of Hope) and the foster parent (Flythe) were required by the State of Florida to pass a rigorous background screening, training, and evaluation prior to taking on the critical role of caring for our most vulnerable children,” Drew said.

***

A report issued by doctors at the hospital stated “suspicion” surrounding injuries to the head not consistent with an accident.

An active investigation had already been opened Dec. 4 regarding Flythe’s residence in Riverview, a Tampa suburb, due to food stuck in the young boy’s throat, causing him to choke.

He was discharged Dec. 7, but later readmitted the same day after and became “unresponsive,” the Times reported.

The boy died after being taken off life support Dec. 11.

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$20 debt leads to melee at Florida Girl Scout cookie stand

Law enforcement officials say an argument over a $20 debt led to a melee at a Girl Scout cookie stand outside a Wal-Mart store in central Florida.

Flagler County Sheriff’s deputies arrested two teenage brothers on disorderly conduct and battery charges following the Saturday evening attack. Arriving deputies say the teens knocked over a table and scattered boxes of Girl Scout cookies outside the Palm Coast store.

The Daytona Beach News-Journal reports the teens – ages 18 and 16 – told deputies they asked for the money that one of the girls owed them. When an adult at the stand told them they couldn’t pay, the family demanded to be paid in cookies.

An arrest report says the boys then punched a man, woman and teenager before started smashing cookie boxes.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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