This past June, the marriage of David and Cynthia Mohney was unraveling: David, records say, was “controlling and jealous.” Cynthia was, at times, “stumbling drunk,” and beat her three children when under the influence.
“The younger children,” a child welfare report said, “state they are afraid of [their] mother when she is drinking.”
An investigator from the Department of Children & Families elicited a “safety plan,” signed by both parents, a written pledge in which the Port Orange couple agreed to “[refrain] from family violence” near the children, and to throw out all the alcohol. If the couple failed to honor the pledge, it said, “parents or children will contact” DCF.
The children never got a chance to call for help. On Friday, two months after DCF last saw the family, 52-year-old David Mohney shot his three children, and then himself. The two older kids, 14-year-old Savanna and 11-year-old David, were killed. Their younger sister Lauren, age 9, is in a medically induced coma, and recovering at an Orlando hospital from a gunshot wound to her head.
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“The saddest thing of all is that nobody saw it coming — not me, not Cynthia, nobody,” said Zachary Stoumbos, an Orlando lawyer who represented Cynthia Mohney during a June domestic violence hearing. “This was horrific, and none of us saw it coming.”
After reading the Mohney family’s DCF history on Wednesday, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jeri B. Cohen did not concur that the deadly violence came out of nowhere. Given all the family’s red flags — allegations that Cynthia drank excessively and smacked her children; the description of David as jealous and controlling; the domestic violence report; and the children’s disclosure that they were afraid of their mother — DCF should have monitored the family for longer than a month or so, said Cohen, who has presided over cases involving troubled parents with substance abuse problems for more than 15 years.
“I would have erred on the side of keeping the case open,” Cohen said. “I think there are enough flags.”
Savanna and David Mohney are among at least 525 Florida children who died of abuse or neglect after some contact between DCF and their family. The deaths spiked in Florida after state child welfare administrators implemented a far-reaching policy of preserving troubled families, even as the state scaled back its investment in treatment and services designed to make children safer.
The children’s stories are chronicled in a continuing Miami Herald series, Innocents Lost.
Volusia County, where the Mohney family lived in a large house on Jackson Lane, is part of DCF’s Northeast Region, which has been under heightened scrutiny. Administrators in Gainesville were faulted last January for closing investigations too quickly in order to keep caseloads low after 2-year-old Ezra Raphael was beaten to death, allegedly by his mother’s boyfriend. Then, last month, a grandfather in tiny Bell shot and killed all six of his grandchildren. The family had been the subject of 18 reports to DCF over an eight-year span.
DCF’s history with the Mohney family was short-lived. It began on June 18, when somebody — possibly David Mohney or his attorney — called the agency’s hotline to report concerns that Cynthia Mohney’s drinking and increasingly violent behavior were a threat to the children. The call was made two weeks after David Mohney asked a Volusia County domestic violence judge to bar Cynthia Mohney from any contact with her husband or children.
The allegations were serious: Cynthia, DCF was told, drank heavily, and would hit and slap her children with little provocation. “The hits described are loud and hard,” DCF was told, “beyond corporal punishment.”
The complaint against Cynthia Mohney detailed a host of alleged incidents: She drank wine and two glasses of Vodka at a restaurant and slapped her son, David, because he told his sister to shut up. She “struck” David three times one night because he resisted going to bed. She slapped the boy for “smirking.” He was “struck due to being sarcastic.” On May 29, the complaint said, “the mother struck David three different times and also struck [the 9-year-old] one time and grabbed her by the arm and threw her into the clothes dresser.”
An investigation that lasted slightly over a month found that the “children are physically hit by the mother when she is drinking, and the two younger children are afraid of [the] mother. Mother drinks to the point of intoxication most of the time and becomes more aggressive per family members.”
The investigation revealed troubling behaviors by David Mohney, as well. David — a retired military man who stayed home with the children while Cynthia worked as an advanced registered nurse practitioner — was jealous and controlling. He also, Stoumbos said, owned three guns, including a $1,500 “marksman” quality 9mm handgun.
Stoumbos, a former prosecutor, strongly denies allegations that Cynthia drank excessively or harmed her children. Parents, he said, have “legal authority to spank their children, they just can’t cross a certain threshold.” Cynthia’s spankings were “normal, justified, customary discipline,” he said. “Nothing remotely resembling abuse.”
A DCF investigator apparently agreed, and closed the investigation on July 21 as unsubstantiated. The agency took a handful of actions: Records show that the Mohneys signed a “safety plan” on June 19, promising to avoid violence. Cynthia Mohney also agreed to abstain from alcohol until she could be evaluated for substance abuse. The couple already was engaged in counseling as a condition of lifting David Mohney’s injunction.
Such “safety” plans have been criticized as ineffective, and the agency is supposed to be phasing them out in their current form.
Although the agreement is clearly labeled a “safety plan,” DCF spokeswoman Alexis Lambert said the agency did not, in fact, execute a safety plan — but rather, “documented the agreement” that already existed between the couple when the injunction was lifted. “It was not a safety plan executed by the [investigator],” Lambert said, “simply redocumented.”
Whatever it was, it was not enforceable — as agency policy now requires. DCF had no further contact with the couple after July. In Innocents Lost, the Herald documented the deaths of at least 83 children over six years in which parents had signed at least one safety plan, sometimes several.
The Mohney’s safety plan, Cohen said, was little more than a promise by the parents to keep their children safe. “There is no oversight on the family at all,” she added.
After the Herald series ran, lawmakers passed a sweeping reform bill requiring that safety plans “be specific, sufficient, feasible and sustainable.” A safety plan, the new law said, “may not rely on promissory commitments by the parent, caregiver or legal custodian who is currently not able to protect the child.”
Last Friday, Stoumbos said, David Mohney awoke his wife at about 4:30 a.m. David Mohney had been sleeping in the master bedroom while Cynthia slept on a mattress on the floor upstairs as the couple’s increasingly contentious divorce proceeded. When Cynthia reached the kitchen downstairs, she noticed her husband was clutching a gun. All of his guns were supposed to be at the neighbor’s house across the street.
“This all ends now,” he said, according to Stoumbos. “The divorce will not go forward. We will withdraw the petition and reconcile. You are my wife, and if you don’t agree to this, I will shoot our children. I will kill them, and you will go through the rest of your life without children knowing you could have stopped it.”
Stoumbos said that Mohney demanded his wife announce to the family that the couple was back in love. Cynthia, Stoumbos said, “would move immediately back into the bedroom,” David told her, “because your body is mine, and no one else’s.” Then, the lawyer said, he punched her in the mouth, leaving a fat, purple lip.
Cynthia Mohney ran across the street to the neighbor who had promised to keep David’s three guns. The neighbor would not let her in, Stoumbos said, but handed her a phone. As Cynthia frantically called for help, she heard the pop-pop-pop of gunshots.
The Volusia County Sheriff’s Office said David Mohney was found on the kitchen floor, his 9mm firearm next to him. The 9-year-old boy was in a ground floor bedroom; his two sisters were shot in an upstairs bedroom.
Miami Herald correspondent Shannon Kaestle contributed to this report.