Miami-Dade County

Weeks after foster teen’s suicide, child welfare groups spar over system’s dysfunction

Naika Venant
Naika Venant

Naika Venant, the 14-year-old foster child whose live-streamed suicide last month became a rallying cry among critics of social media, is taking on another role: poster child for the dysfunctions of Miami’s long-troubled child welfare system.

At a meeting of the county’s child welfare oversight board Thursday morning, judges, educators and children’s advocates excoriated the leaders of Our Kids, Miami’s privately run foster care and adoption agency. Board members accused Our Kids administrators of intimidating their critics, and seeking “retribution” against foster parents who challenged them. Typically a tame group, the Community Based Care Alliance generated raised voices and sharp rebukes Thursday.

The most vocal critic was also one of the most veteran: Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman, a 20-year mainstay of the child welfare bench. The judge, who chairs the watchdog group, accused Our Kids bosses of running roughshod over other groups in the community with whom they interact.

“You need to stop threatening people. That needs to stop,” Lederman said. “Until that stops we cannot work together.”

David Friedman, a board member from Our Kids, which operates under contract with the Department of Children & Families, bore the brunt of the alliance’s anger. Friedman accused alliance members of turning him into a punching bag and demanded that they back up their criticism.

“Are you accusing me of lying?” Lederman said of her claims that critics are silenced. Lederman insisted such frustrations were palpable. “That’s unacceptable,” she added.

Friedman suggested that part of the group’s ire stemmed from the perception that Our Kids was standing in the way of an internal investigation, apparently into the events preceding Naika’s death. “I agree,” he said. “We should have an investigation.”

Naika was removed from her mother’s care in 2009, amid allegations of physical abuse. Since then, she had bounced in and out of state care. In January, she was living in a Miami Gardens foster home along with one, and possibly two, other youth. On Jan. 22, Naika wrapped a scarf around her neck and tied it to a shower rod. She hanged herself after streaming on Facebook Live for about two hours. The tragedy drew attention across the nation, casting a harsh light on Miami’s child welfare effort.

READ MORE: Another girl hangs herself while streaming it live — this time in Miami

Naika’s death highlighted basic “blocking and tackling” issues in Miami-Dade’s child welfare system, said Charles Auslander, former head of the Children’s Trust, a countywide children’s services taxing district, who also oversaw DCF’s Miami office in the early 2000s.

“We have a situation where candor among us partners is not systemic,” he said. “There are immense issues with pointing fingers at those who have less authority than we do.”

Foster parents in particular feel left out of the process and treated poorly, said Alexsa Leto, a guardian ad litem, or court-appointed advocate, from Monroe County. They’re afraid, she said, of saying the wrong thing and losing their foster child to DCF. Leto brought up a child welfare survey sent to about 150 foster families, and attributed the paltry six responses to foster parents being fearful of Our Kids.

“We’re not going to be able to deal with the dysfunction in the child welfare system without honest conversations,” Leto said.

Maritza Moreno, who billed herself as a “concerned private citizen” on the board, said she invited foster parents to speak at the meeting on this very topic but they backed out at the last minute because they’re afraid of retaliation.

When members of the Our Kids board shook their heads to deny the accusation, Moreno shot back. “Don’t say no. It happens. No one ever asked me why I’m no longer a foster parent,” she said. “I’m here because I’ve got nothing to lose.”

Denise Sasiain, president of the South Florida Foster & Adoptive Parent Association, told the board she fields dozens of calls each week from parents who have issues with the child welfare system and DCF. She mentioned a case where a foster parent stayed home from work for a month because she couldn’t find suitable day care.

When the mother told a case manager, Sasiain said someone from the agency threatened to remove the child if the parent didn’t “figure it out.”

“Because one case worker said something inappropriate to a foster parent doesn’t mean Our Kids is systematically shutting down dialogue,” Friedman replied.

Gus Barreiro, a former state lawmaker who is a community engagement liaison for the Children’s Trust, accused Friedman of denying the obvious: “If three people tell me I have a tail, I have a tail,” he said. “I’m asking you as a board member to absorb that this is coming from a variety of sources.”

Friedman suggested that the group was ill-served by allowing members to vent interminably against his agency. “The subtle message I got is ‘you’re awful and everybody is afraid of you,’ ” Friedman said. “We need to be fair. We need to assume we’re all coming at this with the right motivations.”