All Naika Venant wanted was her mother’s love.
Even after her mother beat her 30 times with a belt. Even after her mother abandoned her to the foster care system, where she claimed to have been raped. Even after her mother sent taunting text messages.
Naika just wanted to go home.
Late Wednesday, the Florida Department of Children & Families released thousands of pages of internal records documenting the 14-year-old’s labyrinthine history with the agency. The documents also revealed another story: Naika’s tortured relationship with a mother she loved, but who rejected her again and again. On Jan. 22, Naika took her own life in a foster care shower stall — hanging herself while live-streaming on Facebook.
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Tucked inside the stack of records — released because of a Herald court petition — were a series of heartbreaking text messages between Naika and her mother, Gina Alexis. Other texts were from a foster care caseworker who had tried in vain to bring peace between the two, and to bring Naika home. Both adults appeared to expect a 14-year-old with a half-dozen mental health diagnoses and a lifelong history of child abuse and rejection to behave like a grown-up.
In late September, four months before she died, Naika made one of her last attempts at winning her mother’s affection. With her cellphone nearly out of juice, she texted her mother from her foster home and, in fractured syntax, begged for a reunion.
“I wanna make this work betwn us...Tell me what I gotta Do & iLL Do iT Im Tired Of Us Fighting We Needa Make This Work Im Ready for Us to be a Team AGAIN,” she wrote at 9:35 a.m. “IWanna Be That Little Girl Yhu Once Had iM Ready to Grow up && Take Responsibility As a Teenager.”
She promised to do better academically, mentally, physically. “ICan Do Better iKnow ICan Gimme Another Chance. I Don’t Wanna Be Here Tryna Stay Strong,” the girl pleaded.
It’s difficult to determine how Alexis reacted, as the records are redacted in such a way that it is, at times, hard to know who is speaking, and when. Someone replied: “All that urban talk.”
The messages — and the records, as a whole — make clear that, Naika’s entreaties notwithstanding, Gina Alexis wanted very little to do with her daughter by the winter of 2017.
In a statement issued Monday along with a previous document release, DCF Secretary Mike Carroll said that, despite herculean efforts to reform the state’s child protection system, much work remains to be done.
“There is little we can say that adequately describes the sorrow we still feel today from the loss of Naika,” Carroll said. “It is even more exacerbated by the information that was learned during the course of the [agency’s] 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.”
He reissued the statement, verbatim, on Wednesday.
The records released Wednesday follow the arc of Naika’s family from before she was born Dec. 15, 2002, in Haiti, to a 17-year-old mother to the girl’s death in the early morning of Jan. 22. The Miami Herald filed a petition in Miami-Dade Circuit Court five days later to obtain the records. Circuit Judge Maria Sampedro-Iglesia ordered their release, citing “good cause” to do so.
Naika had spent three stints in foster care, beginning in 2009, when DCF said her mother had beaten her with a belt, leaving 30 marks on the girl’s arms, legs and back. Naika was in her mother’s home — and doing well, Alexis told caseworkers — only 11 days before everything began to fall apart. In mid-April 2016, Naika, then 13, ran away. When she returned, around April 18, Alexis dropped her off at a case manager’s office, saying she had “had it” with the girl’s behavior.
In an interview with the Herald on Wednesday night, Alexis said her daughter had become increasingly inappropriate sexually, dancing in her underwear on Facebook, and sending explicit photos to other teens. Worse, Alexis was concerned that Naika’s erratic behavior might harm her 5-year-old brother.
And, Alexis said, there was little she could do to intervene. Naika’s treks through foster care had an unintended consequence: They empowered Naika to become increasingly disrespectful and rebellious.
“I just felt like they switched up the morals and values I put in place raising my daughter,” Alexis said. “My daughter went back and forth in the system and used that to manipulate me. She knew that, as a parent, I could not hit my child anymore. She came back and knew Mommy can’t get a belt. She knew that.”
In the state’s custody, Alexis said, Naika developed even worse behavior habits. Though Alexis had sought to limit her daughter’s access to Facebook and text messaging, it appeared that Naika now was spending more time than ever online, Alexis said. The 31-year-old said she forwarded a handful of distasteful messages to caseworkers. In a text to the state, Alexis wrote: “When in my care there wasn’t none of that she gets worse by the second in y’all care...”
If Naika had posted those things while living at home, Alexis said, “I would have gotten in trouble.”
The timeline of Naika’s life released Wednesday by DCF says the girl’s case manager tried to set up a visit between the mother and daughter for the Christmas holiday. Alexis declined, saying “she had been drinking and smoking and therefore was not in a presentable condition,” the report says, adding the exchange occurred at 1 p.m. A week later, Alexis didn’t respond when the worker tried to contact her.
Alexis disputes DCF’s characterization. She said that the judge overseeing the teen’s foster care case had ordered that visits between the two be mediated by a therapist to ease tensions, and that no therapist was available that day. “I told them the therapist needed to be there,” she said.
In early January, the family’s caseworker with the privately run Center for Family and Child Enrichment tried to meet with Alexis. The foster care case, which was intended to conclude with Naika and her mother reunifying, wasn’t “moving forward,” the unidentified caseworker texted. Counselors were concerned that the girl was posting sexually inappropriate content on the internet, and it would “be up to her to make better decisions.”
“I’m not condoning or justifying Naika’s behavior and actions,” the caseworker wrote. “I can only support her by making sure her basic needs are met and that she is safe. She has to be the one to practice better decisions even with all that is being provided to her.”
Alexis replied: “I’m good. I have nothing else to say to the state or time or going out my way for... Naika is y’all problem...I’m done with the games.”
Soon after, it appears that the family’s caseworker walked away, as well.
“She has the help but doesn’t show interest in it,” the caseworker texted, she is really doing what she just want to do. The case is going to be transferred to another case manager. I’m hoping she can do better than I did with Helping Naika.”
When the worker tried one last time to meet with Alexis, the mother rebuffed her. “How clear can I make it that I am not going to come or do anything more in this case,” she wrote.
Notations in Naika’s foster care file from mid-January indicated Naika continued to long for her mother. “Naika often reported that she missed her mother greatly and really wanted to go back home,” the timeline says. “Naika reported that she was feeling a bit sad because her mother didn’t want her back, and wanted her to age out of the foster care system.”
A day after that is noted — and two days before Naika died — her case manager drove her back to the Children’s Courthouse for a hearing in a criminal case arising from Naika’s recent arrest at a foster home. Naika asked whether she could visit with her brother, but was told her mom refused to say where he was.
Naika “showed the casemanager a text message that her mother sent her when she attempted to contact her.”
It was a row of emojis in the shape of a hand, its middle finger extended.