Naika Venant was on Facebook Live for more than two hours before her suicide. Her viewers, some of them her friends, begged the 14-year-old to not go through with it.
But others were cruel. They told her she was just seeking attention, that she was putting up an act. They even urged her to do it.
And then she did, hanging herself in the bathroom of a foster home in southeastern Florida — for everyone to see.
By the time Naika ended her life in January, she had bounced between foster homes, group homes and shelters more than a dozen times, starting from the age of 6. According to a report from state child welfare officials, the teen was suffering under a dysfunctional and abusive relationship with her mother and was failed by a foster care system that was unable to meet the needs of a severely traumatized child.
The Florida Department of Children and Families report, released this week, talks about a girl who slept in the same bed as her mother’s boyfriends and watched “sex movies.” It paints a heartbreaking portrait of a girl who was neglected and abused very early in life:
At age 4, Naika was left alone in her mother’s home for more than an hour without food or water.
At age 5, her mother called her a liar and a faker after she was taken to the emergency room for a chronic health condition.
At age 6, she ended up with 30 belt marks all over her body after her mother reportedly caught her in a sex act with a male babysitter.
The 20-page report also covers a privatized foster care system that, in many ways, could have done better in taking care of a girl who is now gone. Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll acknowledged his agency’s inability to save the troubled child.
“There is little we can say that adequately describes the sorrow we still feel today from the loss of Naika,” Carroll said in a statement earlier this week. “It is even more exacerbated by the information that was learned during the course of the … investigation — that this is a child who endured great trauma in her life and despite many service interventions, we were not able to put the pieces back together to prevent her from taking her own life in such a public forum.”
An attorney for the child’s mother criticized the report, saying it unfairly and inaccurately portrayed Gina Alexis’s treatment of her daughter.
— Joseph Barracato (@JoeBarracato) January 26, 2017
Naika was first moved to a foster home in 2009, after her mother beat her several times with a belt.
At age 6, she was showing “inappropriate sexualized behavior,” raising concerns that she’d been sexually abused, the report says. During a therapy session, Naika revealed that she used to sleep in the same bedroom as her mother’s boyfriends and that she watched pornographic videos.
Concerns of possible sexual abuse resurfaced more than a year later, after Naika was returned to her mother. A report alleged that Naika was raped while she was in foster care. The accused denied it, saying it was Naika who was sexually aggressive, the report says. No one was charged.
In April 2014, when Naika was 11, she ran away from home, fearing her mother would beat her because her baby brother, whom she was babysitting, got hurt, the report says. Alexis later told police that she didn’t want her daughter back and that she would beat the girl if she was left in her care.
Naika, who was back in foster care, still wanted to be back home. At one point, she asked her foster mother to kill her because she didn’t want to be in a foster home anymore, the report says. She longed to be with her mother.
A judge later ordered that Naika be returned to her mother’s care, despite objections from the child’s case manager. Almost two years later, in April 2016, Alexis decided she’d “had it” with her daughter, the report says. So Naika was back in foster care — for good.
Over the next several months, the teen misbehaved. She attacked her foster mother and, at one point, broke a lamp. The teen told her case manager that she thought if she “acted up,” she’d go back home again.
“Naika often told her therapist that she missed her mother greatly and really wanted to go back home,” the report says.
But Alexis refused to engage in treatment services that would help her reunite with her daughter, the report says, adding that she didn’t seem interested in a reunion — not even in a Christmas visit with Naika last year.
In January, Alexis reportedly said that Naika is “y’all problem.” That month, the teen killed herself.
Howard Talenfeld, Alexis’s attorney, said his client was never interviewed for the report, which was done by a team that interviewed Naika’s case manager and others involved in her care. The document also says Alexis was watching the live stream of her daughter’s suicide and that she taunted Naika in the process. Talenfeld said that never happened. To this day, he said, Alexis has not seen the video of her daughter’s death.
“Unfortunately, what’s happened here is instead of answering why the child is not protected, what they’re doing is suggesting that somehow the fault lies with respect to a mother who was facing very significant challenges,” Talenfeld said.
Alexis became pregnant with Naika when she was 16 and left her daughter with her mother in Haiti, the report says. Naika was moved to Florida when she was about 18 months. The child’s father was not in her life, Talenfeld said.
After Naika’s death, Alexis said she loved her daughter and that the foster care system failed them both. “Naika was my baby girl,” she said at a news conference, according to the Miami Herald. “I am sick and devastated. I have trusted Florida foster care people to care for my baby. Instead she kills herself on Facebook. I have to bury my baby.”
Talenfeld said Naika’s death was a consequence of Florida’s privatized foster care system.
The state’s report highlights a particular problem with that system: a shortage of specialized foster care for children with serious emotional issues. It also states that therapies that Naika received focused primarily on the symptoms of her trauma and failed to address the trauma itself.
“Nobody’s been accountable for obtaining the appropriate array of therapeutic services necessary,” Talenfeld said. “It’s a very splintered system. There’s multiple providers, and none of them address the needs.”
Although Naika had a good relationship with her case manager and therapist, she struggled to find a sense of stability, the report says. Late last year, Naika ran away after staying in a foster home for three weeks, according to the report. She ended up in a group home, where she stayed for another three weeks.
She was moved again to another foster home in December. She had been there a month when she committed suicide.
“The concerning piece of all this is that this is a young lady in a privatized system that was in 14 placements in nine months,” Talenfeld said. “The critical question has to be asked: why none of these placements was able to address her needs.”
Florida began privatizing child welfare services in the late 1990s, spending $27.5 million on pilot programs from 1997 to 2000, according to a 2004 report by the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees.
A recent federal report, which analyzed 80 foster cases from April 1 to Sept. 30, found that the state’s foster care system is underperforming, the Tampa Bay Times reported. In more than half of those cases, children were transferred between foster homes without receiving needed services.
“This holds up a light to the people in the state and helps us see how our agency is doing,” Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of a statewide advocacy group on children’s rights, told the Times. “For so many areas to be falling below standard is wake-up call.”