Florida child advocates and attorneys who represent children raped and abused in the child welfare system are struggling to comprehend how and why a 14-year-old girl, who reportedly had been sexually abused while in state care, hanged herself while streaming the event on Facebook Live this week.
“I have to bury my baby,” her mother, Gina Alexis, said through sobs.
It’s another example of how Florida’s experiment with privatization of its child welfare system is a failure, said Howard Talenfeld and Stacie Schmerling. The Fort Lauderdale attorneys are representing Alexis, mother of Naika Venant.
During a press conference at their office, Ms. Alexis cried, “I trusted Florida foster care. Instead she kills herself on Facebook.”
Some blame social media. Talenfeld told those seeking answers to look elsewhere. “We first need to look more than anywhere else at what is going on in our backyards in Florida,” Talenfeld told the media gathered in his Fort Lauderdale law office. “Facebook is a method of communication, a method where the message was sent, but the reality is Facebook didn’t rape her. Facebook didn’t fail to provide her services. Facebook didn’t take her into care promising her a better life.”
Naika’s story covers much of her life. At 7, she was placed in state care after reports of “excessive corporal punishment.” While there, she got a urinary tract infection. Once back with Alexis, Naika confided that she had been sexually abused. Police found a boy twice her age had raped her.
Naika would run away. Though a model student, she needed counseling to help her cope with behavioral issues. A local foster care agency never provided the treatment, Talenfeld said.
She soon was placed in a litany of foster homes, offices, and even a hotel – 10 since April 2016 alone. In August, she was involuntary committed to a psychiatric hospital, or “Baker Acted.”
Then, this week, Naika hanged herself outside a shower stall in a Miami Gardens foster home. She streamed her suicide on Facebook Live, even though child welfare administrators – under the advice of therapists – forbade her from using the application.
The Florida Department of Children & Families refused to discuss the case or release her records to reporters.
“It became virtually impossible for [Naika’s] mom to address these issues and she didn’t get the help from the child protection system in Florida that was supposed to help her. She didn’t get any help,” Talenfeld told reporters. “She came into foster care where she was supposed to be protected,” he said. “She was supposed to be a child who had a future.”