- Associated Press - Thursday, October 2, 2014

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Florida’s child welfare agency was deeply familiar with Don Spirit well before he killed his six grandchildren, his daughter and himself last month.

Over an eight-year period, the agency was called 18 times - including once just weeks before the killing - with allegations that Spirit’s grandchildren were being mistreated, abused or neglected, according to a report released this week by the Department of Children and Families.

The massacre shocked the town of Bell just west of Gainesville and renewed attention on the agency’s handling of abuse and neglect allegations. Over the past three decades, Florida has had numerous scandals involving the treatment of children, including Rilya Wilson, whose disappearance went unnoticed by DCF for about 15 months, largely because a caseworker failed to check on the girl in person. Rilya is presumed dead.

Roy Miller, president of The Children’s Campaign, said the report on the Spirits makes it clear it’s time to hand over all child abuse investigations to local law-enforcement agencies, which are better equipped and have more resources to handle the cases. Currently sheriffs handle investigations in six Florida counties.

“We have had debates for 30 years about DCF’s managing of child protection investigations,” Miller said Thursday. “We don’t believe DCF is the appropriate agency in the modern era to be primarily responsible for child abuse.”

Many of the calls the welfare agency received about the Spirits centered on Sarah Spirit, the children’s mother, who had run-ins with the law and was accused of neglecting her kids, ignoring their medical and dental needs or leaving her children with relatives for days and weeks.

But the records show that Don Spirit - who had a criminal history that spanned three decades, including accidentally shooting and killing his young son while hunting - remained a malevolent force.

Last year, several of the children told child protection investigators that they feared their grandfather. He was supervising the children when one child was burned on a space heater. He was outside with another child when that child fractured his arm. One child witnessed Don Spirit beat his daughter while she was 36 weeks pregnant. A child protection team concluded at that point that Spirit, who was diagnosed as bipolar in 2009, should have no “unsupervised contact” with his grandchildren.

Just two weeks before the killings in Bell, someone called the state child abuse hotline to report that adults were doing drugs in front of the kids. It was the latest of the 18 incidents involving the family since 2006, the report said.

The agency report said interactions with the family “did not sufficiently identify the chronic issues faced by this family and the array of services and interventions necessary to address the family’s needs.’”

Yet DCF officials maintain they never could have predicted the 51-year-old’s rampage. Shortly after Don Spirit used a .45-caliber handgun to kill his daughter and grandchildren - who ranged in age from 3 months to 11 years old - he confessed to a 911 dispatcher and said he would kill himself when authorities arrived. Authorities found the bodies in his mobile home.

“Don Spirit snapped, and it caught everyone in the community by surprise,” Interim DCF Secretary Mike Carroll said in a statement. “No one ever thought he was capable of what he did. The killing of six children is a heartbreaking tragedy beyond any comprehension. But, even one child death means that our agency must review what we should have done - if anything - to better protect the children we work with.”

Carroll said he was taking immediate steps, including retraining for the investigators who worked with the Spirit family and training for all supervisors and investigators across the state. He said the agency would hire people to perform outside reviews of active investigations.

DCF officials confirmed Thursday that one case manager had “resigned voluntarily” and that two case workers had requested transfers to other areas within DCF.

“I called for a review of all cases in the area, and high-risk cases statewide, to take actions based on where the facts lead,” Carroll said in a statement. “Future personnel action is still on the table.”

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Follow Gary Fineout on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fineout

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