Two weeks before Don Charles Spirit annihilated his family, Florida child protection investigators were told that his grandchildren were surrounded by drug abusers — living with a grandfather whose history included the accidental killing of his son, and the physical abuse of his daughter and grandkids.
The investigation of the report to the Department of Children & Families’ hotline was still open last week when Spirit shot his 28-year-old daughter, Sarah Spirit, and her six children — ages 11 years to 2 months — before turning a gun on himself when police in the tiny town of Bell arrived. A DCF report offered no details on its investigation of the 2-week-old hotline call.
Killed were Alana Stewart, 2 months; Brandon Stewart, 4; Destiny Stewart, who would have turned 6 on Saturday; Johnathan Kuhlmann, 8; Kylie Kuhlmann, 9, and Kaleb Kuhlmann, 11.
On Monday, DCF administrators released records to the Miami Herald suggesting the family had a long history of failed child protection efforts. Allegations concerning Sarah Spirit’s parenting ran the gamut: drug abuse, medical neglect, poor supervision of her children, and domestic violence, including fights with her father. Don Spirit had a DCF history also, including an allegation of “the physical abuse of his grandchildren.” Spirit, DCF was told, “hit one of them with a belt, which resulted in bruising.”
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At the time of the Sept. 1 hotline report, Sarah Spirit and her children were living with her father, following her release from jail on a violation of probation charge. Spirit tested positive for illegal substances when screened by a probation officer, the DCF report said. Spirit moved in with her dad after she was kicked out of the home where she and the children were living.
Sarah Spirit’s history with DCF dates to at least 2007, when the agency first offered “voluntary” services to Spirit in an effort to improve her parenting. The agency offered help to her two more times, in 2012 and the following year. “It does not appear that services were ever fully engaged in the latter year,” the latest incident report said.
Don Spirit’s history with DCF included allegations that he physically abused both his children and grandchildren, as well as at least one report of domestic violence between him and his daughter.
From 1990 to 1996, while Don Spirit was living in Hillsborough County, he was arrested and charged at least seven times for a mix of misdemeanors and felonies. The charges included battery, drug possession and depriving a child of food, shelter.
Spirit accidentally shot his son, Kyle, in the head during a hunting trip in Osceola County in 2001. The young boy died instantly.
In an effort to review its history with the family, DCF dispatched a “Critical Incident Rapid Response Team,” a triage unit created by lawmakers last spring as part of an overhaul of the state’s long-troubled child welfare system. The law was passed following the Herald’s publication of Innocents Lost, a series that studied the deaths of nearly 500 children whose families had been known to child protection workers.
Last week’s bloody rampage has fueled a discussion about the dangers of family violence.