For much of her too-short life, Naika Venant bounced between two parents: a birth mother who reportedly beat her without pity, left her in bed with boyfriends who watched “sex movies,” and eventually abandoned her — and the state of Florida, which returned the girl to the mother who had expressed little interest in doing better.
Naika chose Gina Alexis. Again and again, she sought love from the mother who reportedly dispensed it with a fist and a belt.
Her quest ended in a shower stall, where Naika hanged herself with a scarf on Jan. 22 at her latest foster home. She had wanted her epilogue to be as public as possible. While hundreds looked on, Naika streamed her final act on Facebook Live.
Late Monday, the Florida Department of Children & Families released a 20-page examination of its efforts leading up to the 14-year-old’s death. The report concludes that, while state child welfare authorities could have done better, Naika’s fraught relationship with her mother played a significant role in the teen’s tragic death.
“Despite everything that had occurred between Naika and her mother, Naika longed to be home,” said the report, written by members of a Critical Incident Rapid Response Team, or CIRRT, deployed by DCF Secretary Mike Carroll to study Naika’s death. “Naika often told her therapist that she missed her mother greatly and really wanted to go back home.”
Home, the DCF report suggests, was largely a hellish place.
When Naika had just turned 4, DCF was called to her mother’s home. Naika had been left with a male babysitter, who, in turn, left her unattended with no food or running water. Alexis enrolled Naika in daycare, and moved to “a new residence with no visible hazards.”
A year later, Naika showed up at the emergency room with an undisclosed chronic health condition. DCF was summoned when Alexis “called Naika a liar and a faker, and threatened to send her back to Haiti so that her own life could be better,” the report said. DCF again offered daycare, but Alexis “refused to accept any counseling services for herself or Naika,” the report said.
In January 2009, Alexis beat Naika with a belt when the girl had been sexually aggressive with another child, according to the report. The incident left “more than 30 marks on her arms, legs and back,” the report said.
DCF removed Naika from her mother’s care, and the girl began the first of three episodes in foster care, where workers sought to learn where a 6-year-old had learned about sex. In therapy, the girl disclosed that she slept in the same room as her mother’s boyfriends, and that she had watched what she called “sex movies.” Though Naika had told authorities that her mother continued to beat her during unsupervised visits, she was returned to Alexis 17 months later.
A month after Naika returned to her mother, in July 2010, DCF received a report that Naika also had been sexually abused while in foster care. The other child vehemently denied it, insisting that Naika was the aggressive one, and that he repeatedly “would tell her to get out of his room.”
Naika ran away in April 2014, and told investigators she “was afraid her mother was going to beat her again” because her younger brother was injured while she babysat. For her part, Alexis refused to take her daughter back, and threatened to beat the 11-year-old if she was left there. That landed Naika back in foster care, where she remained for two months. That June, a Miami judge — over the objection of caseworkers and a court-ordered lay guardian — returned Naika to her mother.
There is little we can say that adequately describes the sorrow we still feel today from the loss of Naika. It is even more exacerbated by the information that was learned during the course of the CIRRT. 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.
DCF Secretary Mike Carroll
Then, in April 2016, Alexis returned her daughter to the state, saying she had “had it” with her daughter’s behavior. The next several months were a blur: Naika changed homes 14 times, “most of which resulted from behavioral disruptions,” the report said. The constant movement made it extremely difficult for mental health professionals to offer any kind of meaningful care.
In November, the professionals recommended that Naika live in what’s called a specialized therapeutic foster home, where she could receive the kind of intensive care she needed. But there was no bed available, and so Naika ping-ponged yet again.
In its report, the DCF team faulted the professionals who worked with Naika for treating the symptoms of her trauma and abuse “rather than addressing the trauma itself; for providing mental health care to the girl in a “fragmented” fashion where workers failed to communicate with each other and for failing to address the toxicity of Naika’s relationship with her mother.
In a prepared statement, Carroll, DCF’s secretary, said: “There is little we can say that adequately describes the sorrow we still feel today from the loss of Naika. It is even more exacerbated by the information that was learned during the course of the CIRRT. 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.
A month after Naika returned to her mother, in July 2010, DCF received a report that Naika also had been sexually abused while in foster care.
“There has been much work done in the child welfare system throughout the state, and in Miami-Dade County in recent years, but our work will never be done. The findings outlined in the CIRRT present specific opportunities to make systemic improvements that will inform us and our partner agencies on how to better reach troubled kids.”
Alexis’ attorney, Howard Talenfeld, disputed the report’s findings, saying the state whisked Naika between 14 different homes and shelters but never found a bed where she most needed it, in a therapeutic foster home.
“The report does not contain critical facts, relies upon inaccurate information and is an apparent whitewash of the systemic failures of Our Kids and CFCE,” Talenfeld said, referring to the region’s privately run foster care agency and the Center for Family and Child Enrichment, which provided services to Naika under contract with Our Kids. “Our Kids has known for years that it has woefully failed to recruit sufficient therapeutic placements to meet the needs of the children it is supposed to serve.”