Miami-Dade County

Child welfare workers in Facebook Live hanging threatened with contempt

An image of Naika Venant on her Facebook page. On the social media platform where she liked to post personal videos, some longer than an hour, she called herself Hothead Nikee.
An image of Naika Venant on her Facebook page. On the social media platform where she liked to post personal videos, some longer than an hour, she called herself Hothead Nikee. Facebook

A Miami child welfare judge threatened to hold child welfare workers in contempt of court for failing to appear before her Tuesday morning to help explain “what went wrong” before a 14-year-old hanged herself while live-streaming the tragedy on Facebook.

She also agreed, in response to a Miami Herald court petition, to review thousands of pages of documents related to the girl’s care to determine which of them the public has a right to see.

Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Maria Sampedro-Iglesia had scheduled a hearing for Tuesday morning to examine the suicide last week of Naika Venant, a troubled teenager who had been in and out of foster care since 2009.

Sometime after midnight on Jan. 22, Naika tied a scarf around her neck and hanged herself from a shower door. The teen streamed her death on Facebook Live from a bathroom of her Miami Gardens foster home. About two hours into the video, she was seen dangling from the shower.

Although the archived video has been taken down, portions and some still photos extracted from it remain in circulation.

Sampedro-Iglesia opened her hearing Tuesday by noting that child welfare administrators entrusted with Naika’s well-being had failed to show up. Naika was assigned to the foster home by the Center for Family and Child Enrichment, a case-management agency under subcontract with the Department of Children & Families.

“I requested that representatives of the agency appear,” Sampedro-Iglesia said, “and that [request] was violated.”

Sampedro-Iglesia said she was issuing an “order to show cause,” which requires child welfare workers to appear before her and explain why they should not be held in contempt. The order was not immediately signed.

At a hearing on Naika’s case Jan. 10, Sampedro-Iglesia had issued a series of instructions detailing which services should be provided to Naika, and how the girl’s case should proceed, the judge said. Following Naika’s death, “I had requested that someone be here to testify about what happened, if anything, from Jan. 10 to the date of her death — and no one is here.”

A lawyer for the state asked the judge to grant DCF more time to respond to Sampedro-Iglesia’s request. The judge shot back: “It seems to me it is totally inappropriate to file [that motion] after the fact. ... I can’t even think of the appropriate adjective for a request of that nature for this type of case to be totally ignored.”

Later in the hearing, Clarissa Cabreja, DCF regional director for children’s legal services, suggested that the state had good reason for its reluctance to discuss Naika’s death in an open courtroom: DCF administrators had immediately begun an investigation, and the review is ongoing.

Additionally, a criminal investigation is underway, and several agencies are working together to determine what happened.

“Our ability to openly share information today is quite limited,” Cabreja said. “We are concerned that any and all information that is disclosed may hinder the integrity of the investigation.”

Cabreja also argued that Sampedro-Iglesia’s authority to preside over Naika’s child welfare case ended with the child’s death.

“We can agree to disagree” about that, Sampedro-Iglesia said.

Acting upon a request filed Friday by the Herald, Sampedro-Iglesia agreed to privately review thousands of pages of Naika’s child welfare history and release all or part of the documents to the Herald. The media company had argued there was “good cause” to open the records, as the community has an interest in examining how the state administers its child welfare programs.

Leslie Hinds, regional legal counsel for DCF’s office of general counsel, said the agency did not oppose release of the documents so long as Sampedro-Iglesia reviewed them first to ensure the privacy rights of other foster children, among others, were not violated.

Howard Talenfeld, an attorney for Naika’s mother, Gina Alexis, told the judge his client was “highly supportive of the Herald’s petition, as she does want the truth.”

“As we all do,” the judge replied quickly.