On her last night, Giulianna Ramos Bermudez repeatedly refused to take her prescribed medication and bickered with the mother of her Orlando foster care group home. Sometime in the small of the night, she looped a belt around her neck until it squeezed the breath out of her.
It wasn’t until almost 9 the next morning, June 30, that a group home housemate peered inside the closet of Ramos Bermudez’s room. Witnesses could hear the 16-year-old “holler, ‘oh, my God,’ ” police wrote. Giulianna was “sitting in the closet with a belt around her neck.”
The 16-year-old became the third Florida foster child to hang herself in less than a year, and the second for whom medication might have played a role. She left behind a child of her own, a 2-year-old girl who was born shortly after Giulianna was taken into state care.
Mazzelyn Marsh, a 17-year-old who took Giulianna under her wing when she entered foster care, said her best friend was desperate to get out of the group home and reunite with her daughter. In the home, Mazzelyn said Giulianna was bullied by the other girls for her weight, her thick Hispanic accent and her status as a young mother.
Like most foster kids she knows, Mazzelyn said, Giulianna was in therapy. And like her peers, Mazzelyn said, her friend didn’t like it. She was prescribed a powerful anti-psychotic drug that is also used to treat depression.
“She would always refuse her meds. She said, ‘Mazzy, it makes me feel like a zombie,’ ” Mazzelyn said. “The meds made her depressed. She wasn’t depressed.
“Just because someone has a bit of anger or acts out, they put you on meds,” she said.
Citing legally mandated confidentiality, the Florida Department of Children & Families declined to discuss Giulianna’s death, or to release records relating to her three-year stint in foster care, and its tragic end at the Eva House group home in Orlando. DCF released only a one-and-a-half page incident report that said the teen “committed suicide by hanging in her bedroom at the group home in which she resided.” She “had a history of mental health issues and was known to have violent outbursts,” the report added.
An agency spokeswoman, Jessica Sims, said Giulianna’s records were confidential, unless and until the department determines she died as a result of abuse or neglect.
With regard to the medication mentioned in both the DCF and Orange Sheriff’s Office reports, Sims said: “DCF does not prescribe medication.”
“The loss of this young lady is truly heart-wrenching and our condolences go out to all those who knew and loved her, including the group home staff and other teens at the residence,” DCF Secretary Mike Carroll said in a prepared statement. “The department has an ongoing death investigation and a special review is also underway to examine all systemic interaction and medical treatment.”
On Wednesday, DCF provided the Herald with copies of the group home’s four most recent licensing records. They show the Eva House, and a sister group home in Winter Park — both run by the nonprofit Images of Glory — had few deficiencies, and were praised by child welfare administrators for maintaining a home-like atmosphere that was “neat, clean and organized.” The home, a 2017 report said, “is designed to provide a living environment for displaced children who operate as the functional equivalent of a family.”
Giulianna’s hanging marks the third suicide by an adolescent in DCF custody in less than a year. Sixteen-year-old Lauryn Martin fashioned a blue scarf into a noose on Dec. 20, 2016, and hanged herself in the doorway at a Florida Keys youth shelter. She had been adopted from foster care in December 2008, returned to the state by her adoptive parents, and had somehow been transferred to the shelter from Southwest Florida, where she lived, a report said.
“They returned her to me dead,” Lauryn’s birth mother, Gerri Hood, said to a reporter this week. “They could not return her to me living.”
Then, a month later, 14-year-old Naika Venant took her own life on Jan. 22, hanging herself in the bathroom of her foster home while streaming the suicide on Facebook Live. Naika had been taking two psychiatric drugs — one of which carries an FDA black box warning for suicidal ideations — when she wrapped a scarf around her neck.
Between 2013 and 2014, child abuse investigators looked into three reports involving Giulianna, including complaints of physical abuse and an allegation of sexual abuse, the incident report said. When Giulianna was 13, in May 2014, she was taken from her mother’s home and placed in foster care, “at which time it was determined that she was pregnant.”
In the years Giulianna was under DCF’s care, Mazzelyn said her friend stayed in group homes in Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville.
Mazzelyn said this week she’s been bounced around from house to house ever since her friend died. She said she stayed with Giulianna’s aunt briefly, then a different house every night ever since. She has not been able to see her goddaughter, Giulianna’s toddler.
“This is my life they’re dealing with,” she said. “They don’t care.”
On the night of June 29, Giulianna spoke with several workers who had been assigned to her case: her house parent, a therapist, her case manager and a court-appointed guardian. The DCF report doesn’t say what was going on, except to note that there was a disagreement over unspecified medication.
Giulianna “refused to take her medication,” a drug that had been prescribed prior to her entry in state care, the report said. “When the house parent attempted a second time to get her to take her medication [she] again refused, and told the house parent to leave her alone.”
The Orange Sheriff’s Office report offers more detail. It said that around 3:45 p.m. on June 29, Giulianna refused to leave the house when the group home’s house parent, identified as Michelle Denise Loman, asked her to go for an appointment. That prompted the group home’s assistant director to call Giulianna’s court-appointed guardian ad litem and ask her to talk with the troubled teen.
The guardian didn’t get anywhere, the police report said. Giulianna “told her she wasn’t going to do anything she didn’t want to do, and no one was going to force her.”
That night, at 11:30 p.m., Loman asked the girl to take her medication. “No, leave me alone,” she said.
Loman tied the girl’s ill temper to the comings and goings of her daughter, who had lived in the group home with Giulianna until recently, when DCF removed the toddler from Giulianna’s care. “Loman said everyone got along in the house, and there were no issues prior to [Giulianna’s] daughter coming to live with them. Once the baby arrived, she seemed to notice [Giulianna’s] attitude change, in a negative way.
“Loman said she expected [Giulianna’s] behavior and attitude to change back to normal once the child had left the home, but she noticed no change.”
Three of the teen’s housemates told police Giulianna did not appear suicidal. “They did however state that [Giulianna] was depressed.”
If Giulianna, whom Mazzelyn calls “sis,” was depressed, she didn’t tell her best friend. Mazzelyn said Giulianna was getting ready to move out of the group home and into another home with her daughter. She “beat the system,” Mazzelyn said, referring to the pending reunion.
The last month without her has been tough for Mazzelyn. There’s no one to bring to her grandma’s house on the weekend or walk to the park with, or listen to music with. No one to call her “Snow Bunny” or “Pookie” anymore, Mazzelyn’s nicknames.
“We were just always normally together,” Mazzelyn said. “I go to dial her number and I’m like, ‘oh sh--, I can’t call her.’ ”
That pain spilled onto social media, where Mazzelyn openly mourned the loss of “an amazing mother and an even better little sister.” She stitched together slideshows of their selfies set to music (“Missing You” by 1st Lady), recorded live videos of the remembrance ceremony and posted pictures of the flower-strewn coffin.
At her funeral, Mazzelyn remembered, more than two dozen child welfare staffers showed up. One of the group home workers flung herself on the ground and screamed, “Jesus, why?” The only other attendees, besides Mazzelyn, were members of Giulianna’s family.
“Growing up the way we did made us so strong. I know u are stronger than this. I know u didnt mean this,” she wrote. “Ill make sure ur daughter knows mommy loves her. I love you so much.”
If you or someone you know is considering self-harm, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, available 24/7: 1-800-273-8255.