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DCF Reaches Settlement In Bell 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.

The Florida Department of Children and Families and two private companies have agreed to pay $750,000 to settle legal claims resulting from a mass killing in Gilchrist County last year.

Don Spirit, 51, murdered his daughter, Sarah, and her six children --- who ranged in age from 2 months old to 11 years old --- before committing suicide.

DCF will pay $450,000, while the Partnership for Strong Families and Devereux, two companies that help the state manage child-welfare cases, will pay $250,000 and $50,000, respectively, as part of the settlement. The money will go to the victims' estates.

According to the department, the family had been involved in 18 child-protective investigations from February 2006 to Sept. 18, 2014, the day of the killings. Don Spirit was involved in six of the investigations and was alleged to have been the perpetrator in three, including a 2008 incident in which he was arrested for physically abusing his then-pregnant daughter.

The murders prompted questions about whether the department and private providers could have done more to protect the children.

According to what is known as a Critical Incident Rapid Response Team, DCF and the Gilchrist County Sheriff's Office had visited the family's home as recently as Sept. 2, 2014, but the report said a case note indicated that the children were not "in imminent danger of illness or injury from abuse, neglect or abandonment."

In response, DCF Secretary Mike Carroll ordered the retraining of staff in the department's nearby Chiefland office and a review of all open investigations involving children 3 years old and younger in Gilchrist and Dixie counties. He also ordered training for 1,600 child protective investigators and supervisors statewide, and increased the implementation of a process known as the "Rapid Safety Feedback" system, which allows quality-assurance specialists to oversee a child-protective investigation in real time.

"I have been with the department for 25 years," Carroll said at the time. "And I thought I had seen it all until this tragedy occurred."

The settlement was first reported by