Florida Keys

Sister says she was never never told of teen’s suicide at children’s shelter

The Florida Keys Children’s Shelter is on Plantation Key.
The Florida Keys Children’s Shelter is on Plantation Key.

Lauryn Martin, 16, on Friday remained on life support in Nicklaus Children’s Hospital near South Miami a little over a week after hanging herself with a scarf in her dorm room at the Florida Keys Children’s Shelter last week.

But there’s no chance she’ll regain consciousness. The only reason she’s being kept alive is so her organs can be harvested, a decision that does not sit well with her oldest sister.

“I don’t agree with that. She was in the state’s custody and the state should have protected her,” Whitley Rodriguez, 29, said from the hospital. “The state couldn’t protect her, so why do they want her organs?”

The state of Florida is Lauryn’s next of kin because she is a ward of the state. She’s been in foster care ever since she was removed from her mother’s care as a little girl, Rodriguez said. In fact, all six siblings in Lauryn’s family were in the foster-care system at some point in their lives.

What angers Rodriguez most about what happened to Lauryn, though, is she never found out about her sister taking her own life in Plantation Key until Wednesday morning after another teen living at the shelter called her and told her. Rodriguez received the call around 7 a.m. and immediately drove from her home in Orlando to Miami.

“I never knew,” Rodriguez said. “They were never going to tell us.”

William Mann, co-chief executive of the shelter, said in a statement that the shelter has “no record of a Whitley Rodriguez or any siblings.”

Mann also placed the onus of contacting Lauryn’s family on Lutheran Services Florida, a the Florida Department of Children and Families-contracted organization, which he referred to as “the lead agency.”

“Our staff followed policy and procedure by immediately notifying all appropriate parties of the incident; including 911, the Florida Keys Children’s Shelter leadership, Monroe County courtesy case worker and the case manager at the lead agency,” Mann wrote. “The lead agency, as the youth’s legal guardian and health care surrogate has the authority to notify appropriate family members of the youth’s status and any incidents.”

Department of Children’s and Family Services spokeswoman Jessica Sims would only say that shelter staff contacted the “legal guardian.”

“The circumstances surrounding this case are tragic and deeply saddening. When the initial incident occurred, the provider appropriately notified the child’s legal guardian,” Sims wrote in an email. “As the department has an active child protective investigation, further details remain confidential at this time.”

Lutheran Services could not immediately be reached for comment.

When Rodriguez arrived at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, she said she was not allowed to see her sister until a court-appointed guardian ad litem arranged an emergency meeting Wednesday morning.

“I drove all the way to see her and they tell me I can’t see her,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez says she’s certain her sister’s various case managers had her contact information because she received calls on numerous occasions when her sister got into trouble over the years.

“School problems, they called me right away. When she ran away, they would call. If she needed to be calmed down, they would call me,” Rodriguez said. “But now, they don’t call me, and my number’s been the same for years.”

Lauryn was also always allowed to go with her sister as long as whatever foster family or group home she was in at the time knew when she was going to be returned, Rodriguez said. Rodriquez had plans to pick up her little sister so she could spend Christmas with her family.

“This is the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever been through my entire life,” Rodriguez said.

Sidney Hood, another one of Lauryn’s sisters, also said the state should have known to call one of her five older siblings.

“They knew she had a huge family who contacted her constantly,” Hood said from her home in Illinois.

Before coming to Plantation Key in November, Lauryn was in a group home in Lehigh Acres on the west coast of the state in Lee County.

Rodriguez and Hood said the Florida Department of Children and Families kept them in the dark about their sister’s whereabouts at any given moment. Text messages Hood provided The Reporter/Keynoter indicate Lauryn did not know why she was sent to the Florida Keys Children’s Shelter and while at the shelter, she thought she was in Key West.

“I’m all the way in Key West,” Lauryn told Hood on Nov. 25.

Hood responded, “OMG, why did they send u there?”

Lauryn replied: “I don’t even know and I don’t know how long ima be out here.”

The messages Hood, 23, was receiving from her little sister were increasingly desperate, and one even included a photo of Lauryn with a scarf attached to a clothes hanger around her neck that read: “If u see this it’s too late.”

Hood said she called DCF after receiving the text but she never got through to anyone who could help.

“I called the hotline and they sent me to another phone, and that person transferred me to someone else,” Hood said.

Rodriguez wants answers about how her sister ended up committing suicide under the state’s watch. While her sister definitely wanted out of the foster-care system, Rodriguez said she showed no signs of being suicidal before arriving in the Keys. She also was not in trouble with the law.

“She had no criminal background,” Rodriguez said. “She did good in school. She had good grades. She loved Facebook and basketball. She was goofy. She was just a regular 16-year-old.”

Deputy Becky Herrin, media relations officer with the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, said agency detectives are investigating the hanging. A significant part of the investigation will have to wait, however, until Lauryn is taken off life support so the medical examiner can conclude the cause of death.