Florida Keys

One foster child hanging stirs anguish; the other is barely noticed

A family photo of Lauryn Martin-Everett; showed her playful side.
A family photo of Lauryn Martin-Everett; showed her playful side. Courtesy of Whitley Rodriguez

Lauryn Martin-Everett tied a blue patterned scarf around her neck and hanged herself from a doorway at a troubled Florida Keys youth shelter.

In the 13 weeks since Lauryn died, her parents have asked no tough questions about what led the 16-year-old to submit to her sorrow. Her parents have asked virtually no questions at all.

Legally, her “parents” were the state of Florida. As a foster child, Lauryn was a ward of the state.

Lauryn’s older sister, 29-year-old Whitley Rodriguez, remains stunned and puzzled that Lauryn would take her own life.

“It’s hard to believe she did that,” Rodriguez told the Miami Herald. “We had a whole life planned. She was smart. She got good grades. She was athletic. It doesn’t make sense for her to throw it all away.”

A “child fatality summary” by the Department of Children & Families on Lauryn’s short life and unexpected death is less than three pages long. Only four paragraphs are devoted to her eight-year odyssey through the state’s child welfare system. A website DCF developed three years ago to bring transparency to the grim business of child death makes no reference to Lauryn Martin-Everett.

DCF released the report to the Herald this past week, along with a short statement: “We remain deeply saddened by the tragic loss of this child.”

Jessica Sims, a DCF spokeswoman, said the agency would not discuss Lauryn’s death, or her many-year history with the department — and will not release her foster care file. Because DCF has determined that Lauryn did not die as a result of abuse or neglect, details of her case cannot be disclosed to the public, the agency said.

When the Herald asked Sims whether the two-and-a-half page summary was the extent of the state’s inquiry into Lauryn’s death, she said an additional “quality assurance” review is expected later.

DCF’s tight lid on Lauryn’s case isn’t sitting well with at least one member of the Community Based Care Alliance, a watchdog group that meets monthly to ensure that Our Kids, the privately run Miami-Dade and Monroe foster care agency, is held to a high standard.

Alliance member and Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jeri Cohen, who has presided over child welfare cases on and off since 1996, reviewed the death summary. “There is nothing in it to learn from,” she said.

Thomas Morton, a child welfare administrator who led the Child Welfare Institute for 22 years, said that “it reads like a Triple A travel TripTik,” mostly underscoring the many stops on her foster care journey.

In its brevity, Lauryn’s story contrasts sharply with that of Naika Venant, a 14-year-old Miami girl who hanged herself in a Miami Gardens foster home 38 days later.

Naika, who had cycled through 14 foster homes in her final weeks, live-streamed her suicide on Facebook, ensuring the tragedy would garner national attention. DCF released a 20-page “rapid response” report about six weeks after her death. The agency also released thousands of pages of detailed records on the orders of a Miami judge after the Herald petitioned for the documents’ disclosure.

It is unclear why Lauryn first became a ward of the state. The summary of her life and death provides no details except that the rights of her birth parents were terminated on Oct. 11, 2006, when Lauryn was 10. She was adopted from the foster care system by another family, but returned to the state Nov. 12, 2014, when her adoptive parents announced they “no longer wished to care for” her.

Lauryn’s return to state care might have had something to do with an allegation of sex abuse; the report is heavily redacted. At the time Lauryn’s adoptive parents abandoned her, Rodriguez said, Lauryn was hoping to move in with her. The two sisters were extremely close, and Rodriguez said she would have passed a home study but for her lack of a driver’s license. Rodriguez already was helping her kid sister financially.

“I fought for Lauryn,” said Rodriguez, who lives in Orlando. “I paid for her cheerleading, her track uniform, her hairdos, her school clothes.”

From November 2014 until her death, Lauryn appears to have burned through at least nine foster care “placements,” with some lasting no more than a week, the summary says.

On Nov. 17, 2016, child welfare administrators dispatched Lauryn from her group home in Lehigh Acres to the Florida Keys Children’s Shelter, which operates an emergency residence in Tavernier, largely for adolescents who have been removed from their parents and have nowhere else to go.

“She told me she hated it, and the place was like a jail,” her sister said. “I said, ‘can I come and see you?’ She said ‘they’re weird here, and they will not let you see me. They’re very strict.’”

DCF’s fatality summary notes that Lauryn had been evaluated by shelter staff, who concluded she “had no known mental health issues, and was not taking any prescribed medication.” Lauryn denied any drug use, and “there was no report or any history, or thoughts of, suicide.”

Morton, who was a staff member to the 2016 U.S. Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities, said that any adolescent with Lauryn’s history would almost certainly be feeling the effects of significant trauma.

“Any kid who went through nine placements in a short period of time and had a failed adoption, you can just assume they had mental health issues,” Morton said. “Kids are resilient. But they are not that damn resilient.”

Cohen, from the alliance, said both of Lauryn’s caseworker and whoever studied her death missed a host of serious red flags: The constant movement from home to home to home suggested the teen was unable to form any kind of attachment with caregivers, who might have offered a buoy during the storm. “It’s obvious something was going on with this child that prevented her from being able to make a connection.”

“When the adoption failed, it had to be extremely traumatic, and they should have known this child needed very intensive therapy,” Cohen said. “There is nothing in that report that says, ‘Gee, we see a child who is bouncing from home to home.’ That is a recipe for disaster, for depression, for anxiety.”

If stability is what Lauryn needed, she was unlikely to find it at the Florida Keys Children’s Shelter, more than 200 miles from her Fort Myers-area home. Administrators told Lauryn her stay there “will last as long as she makes it,” the report said, without elaborating. A Nov. 17 notation in her file said Lauryn was “unhappy” about being sent to the shelter. A Dec. 13 note said Lauryn was missing — having run away — when a caseworker went to the shelter to see her.

Lauryn had been expelled from school in Charlotte County, the summary said, and she had been told that Monroe County “schools would not allow [her] into their facilities due to her behavior.” DCF declined to say whether the teen was allowed to attend any educational program in the Keys, and, if not, how she spent her time there. The day she hanged herself, a police report said, Lauryn, another girl and a staff member had been washing clothes.

When she arrived, her caregivers insisted she sign a safety agreement: She would not harm herself or anyone else.

It was a promise she couldn’t keep.

On Dec. 15, Lauryn tied a wide, blue, scarf-turned-noose around her neck and hanged herself from a bathroom doorway. DCF reported her date of death as Dec. 20. The Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s office, which performed an autopsy, said she died on Dec. 23, after her lungs, liver and kidneys were harvested for transplantation.

The Monroe Sheriff’s Office report on Lauryn is heavily redacted. It mentions a suicide note, but the note’s details were removed. Lauryn’s sister said she was told there was no suicide note.

The Monroe Sheriff’s Office had been to the shelter many times before: Between January 2012 and April 2016, the department recorded 916 call-outs to the facility, on High Point Road, records obtained by the Herald show. Many of the visits by deputies involved reports of “missing” juveniles, or runaways.

One of the children represented in those statistics filed a lawsuit against the shelter, and Our Kids, in March. Going by the pseudonym “Victoria,” the now-young woman said she had run away from the shelter nine times during a two-month stay, only to be returned there repeatedly. Though Victoria needed mental healthcare and far greater supervision, she got none, the lawsuit said.

In June 2012, Victoria ran away — right into the arms of a prostitution ring. Her abduction, the suit claims, was engineered by a caregiver at the shelter, Ricky Atkins. During Victoria’s 41 days in captivity, she was held constantly at gunpoint, coerced into taking drugs, had to go to the bathroom with an escort and was forced to have sex both with her captors and their clients, the lawsuit says. Victoria contracted a venereal disease while enslaved.

Atkins later was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of conspiracy and human trafficking. He was convicted in U.S. District Court in Miami of all three counts and was sentenced to 31 years imprisonment.

William Mann, co-chief executive officer of the shelter, did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.

Lauryn’s sister, Rodriguez, said neither Lauryn nor her caseworker ever explained why she was moved from the Lehigh Acres group home to the Plantation Key shelter — except to say that Lauryn was being “punished” for missing curfew repeatedly. Rodriguez searched the internet for the home, and found stories about human trafficking, she said. “I don’t understand why they would send her there.”

Foster care workers told Rodriguez, she said, that her sister would return to Lee County around the holidays, and she ensured that Lauryn’s presents were waiting. Instead, two days before Christmas, her sister’s organs became a gift of life.

Rodriguez has saved the last conversation she had with her sister, on Facebook. The messages were sent Dec. 1 and Dec. 2, Rodriguez said.

“It’s some weird place. So weird. It’s not like home.”

“I want to go home.”