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Departed DCF Boss Still Troubled By Bell Killings

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

The beginnings of David Abramowitz's resignation from the Florida Department of Children and Families came nearly a year ago, when he learned that six children and their mother had been gunned down in the tiny Gilchrist County town of Bell.

On Sept. 18, 2014, Don Spirit, 51, used a .45-caliber handgun to shoot his 28-year-old daughter, Sarah, and her children, who ranged in age from 11 years to 2 months old. Spirit then called authorities, waited for them to arrive and turned the gun on himself.

The deaths drew national attention to rural Gilchrist County --- part of the 20-county swath of North Florida where Abramowitz, who resigned abruptly last week, oversaw child-welfare services.

"The Bell killings really got me to the core," Abramowitz told The News Service of Florida after his resignation. "I didn't think I was as effective as I could be. … I thought, for the good of the organization, it was just time for a change."

The Gilchrist County family had been well known to the department after being involved in 18 child-protective investigations over eight years. Spirit figured in six of the investigations and was alleged to have been the perpetrator in three. In one instance, investigators confirmed that he physically abused his then-pregnant daughter.

But while a department report concluded the rampage could not have been foreseen, calling it "an extreme outlier," Abramowitz took it hard.

"It caught up," Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll said Friday. "He thought the Northeast Region would benefit from new leadership. …We talked for a long time about it. And I think it will end up having a positive effect on David personally. It will also have a positive effect on us in the Northeast Region."

Stepping in as interim regional managing director will be Pattie Medlock, a 20-year veteran of the department whom both men praised.

Ironically, Abramowitz got the news from Bell on the same day he'd read an inspector general's report about a complaint alleging he had created a hostile work environment.

"I was just shocked at what I was reading," he said. "I was exonerated, but … sometimes my mouth can be colorful, and I've learned from that … I was wrong."

The complaint alleged that Abramowitz had made remarks insulting to women and blacks, calling his employees "hoochie mamas" and "hoes," and that he'd taken a "frat-house" approach to management. He was cleared, but the inspector general recommended additional training, which Abramowitz completed.

News coverage of his resignation this week focused on the inspector general's report, but his brother, state Guardian ad Litem Executive Director Alan Abramowitz, said that some 100 former employees had called or emailed to wish David well.

"He carried a book of children who died (in his region), and he looked at it every morning," Alan Abramowitz said. "He went on hundreds of investigations."

David Abramowitz, who was named to his Department of Children and Families post in 2011, had 30 years of military experience as an aviation officer, battalion commander and brigade commander.

Lee Kaywork, chief executive officer of Family Support Services of North Florida, called Abramowitz "a strong advocate for children" and said he would be missed.

"The child welfare system has the burden of ensuring child safety while trying to preserve a family unit," Kaywork wrote in an email. "The complexities are like a Gideon' knot. I am confident that someone of his strength and integrity will continue to strive to improve the lives of children."

As to the colleagues he's leaving behind, Abramowitz is worried about their high caseloads.

"It's very hard to explain to the community, when you get more than 10 or 12 cases a month, to do the quality work we really need to do by reviewing all the prior history," he said. "To read that and understand it better is a very, very challenging job to do."

"It's hard for folks who don't do this work every day to understand the toll it takes on you as a person," Carroll said. "It gnaws at you over time, and it has a cumulative effect --- and it's why we see the turnover we do on the front lines."