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DCF: 18 Incidents Before Mass Killings

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Department of Children and Families
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Over an eight-year period, Florida's child welfare agency was repeatedly called with allegations that the six children of Sarah Spirit were being mistreated, abused or neglected.

At one point, several children told child protection investigators that they feared their grandfather, Don Spirit. Don Spirit 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. Don Spirit was also seen by one of the children when he beat his daughter while she was 36 weeks pregnant.

Yet the Department of Children and Families maintained in an investigative report released Wednesday that there was "no evidence" to show that child protection investigators could have predicted that Don Spirit would eventually kill his daughter and his six grandchildren.

Spirit last month went on a rampage in the small town of Bell, where he used a .45-caliber handgun to shoot his grandchildren, ranging in age from a few months old to 11 years, before turning the gun on himself. The massacre shocked the community located just west of Gainesville and renewed attention on how Florida's child welfare agency is handling allegations of abuse and neglect.

Just two weeks before the killings, someone called the state child abuse hotline to report that adults were doing drugs in front of the kids. But that was just one of 18 separate incidents involving the family stretching back to 2006, according to the new DCF report.

The report concluded that 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."

The team assembled by DCF, however, said it did not find anything to suggest that anyone could have "predicted" that Spirit would murder his family. Spirit had previously served time in prison after accidentally shooting his young son on a hunting trip.

"Don Spirit snapped, and it caught everyone in the community by surprise," said Interim DCF Secretary Mike Carroll 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 immediate retraining for the investigators who worked with the Spirit family and training for all supervisors and investigators across the state. He also said the agency would start hiring people who will perform outside reviews of active ongoing investigations.

Over the past three decades, Florida's child welfare agency has come under repeated criticism after the deaths and disappearances of children. The agency has since formed multiple blue-ribbon panels to investigate other child deaths. The panels have consistently reached the same conclusions: Glaring red flags were ignored, child welfare officials weren't communicating with attorneys, judges, teachers and others involved in the children's lives and basic critical thinking skills were often lacking during investigations.

Former Secretary David Wilkins tried to overhaul the role of child protective investigators before he resigned last year. He had hired new investigators, including an investigator recently fired for allegedly forging documents. He also reduced caseloads, improved turnover rates and was trying to change the way cases are investigated, but critics, including the agency's private contractors, said the transformation was ill-conceived.