86ºF

DCF Report: Family killings in Bell could not have been foreseen

photo

BELL, Fla. – Facing scrutiny after a Gilchrist County man murdered his daughter and six grandchildren before committing suicide, the Florida Department of Children and Families on Wednesday said it would undertake increased staff training and other reforms -- but concluded the rampage could not have been foreseen.

A preliminary report released by the department said the family was involved in 18 child-protective investigations from February 2006 to last month, with the grandfather, Don Spirit, involved in six of the investigations and alleged to be the perpetrator in three of the cases. In one instance, for example, investigators confirmed that Spirit physically abused his then-pregnant daughter, Sarah. She became one of his murder victims Sept. 18 and was the mother of the six dead children.

DOCUMENT: DCF's preliminary report (PDF)

But the report said investigators could not have known that Spirit (pictured below) would ultimately go on the killing spree.

photo

"The events that unfolded in Bell, Florida, on September 18, 2014, were an incredible tragedy that cuts to the heart of DCF's mission,'' the report said. "The senseless murder of these innocent children and their mother is an extreme outlier. There is no evidence to suggest that anyone, at any time, could have known that Don Spirit was capable of the premeditated and intentional massacre of his six grandchildren, his daughter, and then himself. However, there will never be one child who dies without DCF working to determine what changes can be made or processes improved to prevent future tragedy."

The murders drew national attention to the small town of Bell and led to questions about whether the Department of Children and Families could have done more to protect the children. The department and the Gilchrist County Sheriff's Office visited the family's home as recently as Sept. 2, 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."

Also, however, the report suggested that familiarity with the family in the rural area might have influenced the way the situations were handled.

"This family was well known to staff, law enforcement, the school system and everybody who resided in this small community,'' the report said. "This level of familiarity played a role in ongoing assessments of the family. Staff thought they knew and understood the dynamics and child safety risks within this family and their view of the family appeared not to change over time. Staff essentially became conditioned to emerging factors that should have more fully informed their assessment."

Spirit, 51, used a .45-caliber handgun to shoot his 28-year-old daughter, Sarah, and her children, 11-year-old Kaleb Kuhlmann, 9-year-old Kylie Kuhlmann, 8-year-old Johnathan Kuhlmann, 5-year-old Destiny Stewart, 4-year-old Brandon Stewart, and 2-month-old Alanna Stewart. He then called authorities, waited for them to arrive and shot himself.

In the aftermath of the killings, the Department of Children and Families sent what is known as the "Critical Incident Rapid Response Team" to Gilchrist County to examine the agency's involvement with the family and to look at potentially broader issues with the system of care in the county west of Gainesville. The preliminary report released Wednesday stems from the team's work.

In an email accompanying the report, department Interim Secretary Mike Carroll announced a series of actions the agency will take, including immediate retraining for Chiefland-based investigative staff members who handled the Spirit case. Also, Carroll said the department will require statewide training for all child-protective investigators on fact-gathering before the start of investigations.

In another move, Carroll said the department will take more decisive steps to ensure that its staffers are using a process known as the "Rapid Safety Feedback" system, which allows quality-assurance specialists to oversee a child-protective investigation in real time. He said the department will carry out the change by using 37 of 270 new positions funded during the spring legislative session.

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