Miami-Dade County

Foster care agency leaders quit amid teen suicides, other turmoil

Naika Venant
Naika Venant

Beset by turmoil over the recent suicides of two foster children in their care — and persistent complaints that they were overly secretive and unresponsive — three of the top administrators of Miami’s Our Kids child welfare agency have resigned.

Our Kids’ president, vice president for information technology and chief operating officer all submitted resignation letters within the past two weeks, leaving the region’s privately run foster care and adoption agency with a significant void among top leadership.

In his resignation letter, chief information officer David Harland acknowledged that persistent criticism played a role in his departure. “The unnecessary challenges our team continues to encounter from a handful of board and ‘community’ members, whose underlying motivation is questionable, has led me to the decision that it is time for me to move on,” he wrote on April 10.

President and CEO Jackie Gonzalez focused on her agency’s accomplishments in her letter, listing 10 of them. “I am so proud of the successes management and staff achieved since I joined our kids,” she wrote. In just that brief window, we have made enormous improvements throughout the organization and the system of care.”

Among the improvements: a 17 percent reduction in the number of kids in care, largely a result of finding them permanent homes; leading the state in the number of children adopted from care in the 2016 budget year; erasing a $10.6 million shortfall she inherited in Sept. 2014; and the rollout of several “best practices” initiatives.

It was Gonzalez’s second resignation in less than a year. Both Gonzalez and Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Barbie Toledo had abruptly resigned seven months ago, but reversed their decisions after three members of the Our Kids’ board of directors were ousted. In her letter, Gonzalez had cited what she called a years-long campaign of meddling by “a small but vocal group” of board members.

The hoped-for tranquility never materialized.

The removal of the three curbed the restiveness among members of the Our Kids board. But a second group, called the Community Based Care Alliance — chartered to act as a community watchdog over Our Kids’ operations — became increasingly active and vocal.

The Our Kids leadership team, and much of its board of directors, bristled at some of the oversight efforts by the alliance, a foster parents association and some children’s advocates. In recent months, for example, Our Kids had refused to provide activists with a call-in number so that they could listen to board meetings remotely, as some board members did. The board relented after the Herald sought the number through a public records request early this month.

Tensions rose in recent weeks when two adolescent girls hanged themselves in homes overseen by Our Kids. On Dec. 15, 16-year-old Lauryn Martin-Everett tied a blue scarf around her neck and hanged herself from a doorway at the Florida Keys Youth Shelter, which is regularly used to house hard-to-manage foster children from Miami-Dade and Monroe. Her death certificate says she died on Dec. 23, after several of her organs were harvested for transplantation.

Lauryn had been sent to the shelter by caseworkers in the Fort Myers area, where she had been in state care since at least 2006, when her parents’ rights to raise her had been terminated. She was adopted from foster care, but later was returned to the state by her adoptive family, which “no longer wished to care for her,” a report said. Lauryn cycled through nine foster homes from November 2014 until her death.

Thirty-eight days after Lauryn hanged herself, 14-year-old Naika Venant did the same in the bathroom of a Miami Gardens foster home. Naika’s suicide made international news; she livestreamed the event on Facebook, and photos of her body dangling inside a shower door remained on the Internet for several weeks. Her story raised troubling questions, and members of the CBC Alliance board and others asked them publicly.

At an alliance meeting shortly after Naika’s death, on March 2, judges, educators and advocates lashed out at Our Kids’ leaders, accusing them of trying to silence critics and seeking “retribution” against foster parents who challenged them.

“You need to stop threatening people. That needs to stop,” a prominent judge, Cindy Lederman, who also is an alliance leader, told an Our Kids representative there.

A guardian-ad-litem from the Keys, Alexsa Leto, said: “We’re not going to be able to deal with the dysfunction in the child welfare system without honest conversations.”

At an Our Kids board meeting April 5, members discussed the two deaths, as well as the friction with critics.

The board discussed plans to hire a PR firm to help the agency shape and disseminate its message. “We’re doing some things really well,” one member said, “but we’re not telling the story. We’re not particularly good at that, or focused on that.” Naika’s suicide, the board member said, “got a lot of media attention all over the world.”

“Why are we only talking about the tragedies?,” a board member said. “Why are we not talking about the positive things.”

The Our Kids’ board chairman, Keith Ward, likened the bad publicity to a football game: An offensive lineman plays well for most of the game, protecting his quarterback, but surrenders a sack near the end. Then, the player who took down the quarterback “does a dance” in celebration. “I get it,” he said. “In this business there are going to be tragedies.”