Miami-Dade County

Defy me and I’ll jail you, judge in Facebook Live hanging case tells lawyer

Judge Maria Sampedro-Iglesia
Judge Maria Sampedro-Iglesia Miami Herald Staff

A Miami child welfare judge is threatening to jail a lawyer for the Florida Department of Children & Families, suggesting in a strongly worded order that agency attorneys lied to her about the welfare of foster children who may have witnessed a teenager hanging herself at their Miami Garden’s foster home. The suicide was live-streamed on Facebook.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Maria Sampedro-Iglesia ordered Clarissa Cabreja, the state’s regional child welfare legal director, to appear before her on March 8. More generally, the order requires “CLS,” a reference to DCF’s Children’s Legal Services, to appear in court “to show cause why they should not be held in indirect civil contempt of court.”

In her order, Sampedro-Iglesia, who heads the court’s child welfare division, wrote that the failure of Cabreja “to appear at the hearing may result in the court issuing a writ of bodily attachment for your arrest. If you are arrested,” Sampedro-Iglesia added, “you may be held in jail up to 48 hours before a hearing is held.” The warning was written entirely in uppercase lettering.

“The department is in receipt of and reviewing the court’s order, and fully intends to comply,” Jessica K. Sims, communications director for DCF, told the Miami Herald late Wednesday.

The order is the climax of an unusual courtroom drama that has swirled around the Jan. 22 death of 14-year-old Naika Venant, an emotionally troubled foster child who tied a scarf around her neck and hanged herself from a shower door while streaming on Facebook Live. The order also is the second time in as many months that Sampedro-Iglesia has threatened to hold child welfare administrators in contempt in connection with the tragedy.

Naika had been removed from her mother’s home in 2009 for physical abuse, and had bounced in and out of foster care thereafter. Since April alone, her mother’s attorney says, the girl had hopscotched among 10 different homes and shelters, including a hotel and a child welfare office building. In January, she was living in a Miami Gardens foster home with at least one, and possibly two other children. She hanged herself in a bathroom after live-streaming for about two hours.

Sampedro-Iglesia first asked on Jan. 31 that lawyers for the state give her court case numbers and the initials of any other children who were living at the foster home when Naika killed herself, records say.

“The request was made so that the [judges] covering these cases could determine what services, if any, were being given to the children” residing at the home when Naika died, Sampedro-Iglesia wrote. The goal was to ensure that the children were given counseling or treatment.

That same day, Cabreja gave the judge the initials of two children, along with ostensibly matching case numbers. Sampedro-Iglesia later realized, though, that one of the two children Cabreja identified by case number was not living in the Miami Gardens home at all. Sampedro-Iglesia then issued an order requiring Children’s Legal Services “to provide accurate information” to her by Feb. 24.

Agency lawyers “seemingly complied” within a day, explaining that the department mixed up one child with the initials “J.W.” with another with the same initials, Sampedro-Iglesia wrote. Lawyers told her that the judge overseeing the court case of the correct J.W. was made aware of what J.W. may have witnessed, and that “a detailed status report was filed” with that judge.

The judge, who is not named in the order, also was briefed on the incident at a hearing on Feb. 22, the lawyers said.

That isn’t true, Sampedro-Iglesia wrote.

“The court file does not indicate a status report was filed,” Sampedro-Iglesia wrote in her order, signed Tuesday. “The docket does not reflect a status report was filed, much less a detailed status report, as alleged by CLS. The audio on the J.W. case of Feb. 22, 2017, indicates that no mention of the events of N.V.’s death, or how this child is doing, was offered to the court.”

“The court is very concerned about the welfare and safety of the children living with N.V. at the time of her untimely death,” she wrote in her order.

Last month, Sampedro-Iglesia threatened to hold workers from a privately run case-management group in contempt for failing to show up in court after she ordered that they do so to help explain “what went wrong” with the state’s efforts on Naika’s behalf.

“I requested that representatives of the agency appear, and that [request] was violated,” a clearly perturbed Sampedro-Iglesia said in court Jan. 31, referring to leaders of the Center for Family and Child Enrichment.

Since then, Sampedro-Iglesia has ordered that the state provide thousands of pages of records detailing Naika’s life and odyssey in foster care to the Miami Herald, which had argued the judge had good cause to allow the public to oversee the state’s performance.