How a suicidal Florida foster child fell through the cracks

When Lauryn Martin-Everett hanged herself at a troubled Tavernier youth shelter, children’s advocates in the small island community began asking questions. The answers, they were told, were hundreds of miles away.

Though the 16-year-old had been sent to live at the Florida Keys Children’s Shelter on Plantation Key, the responsibility for her care remained in Southwest Florida.

Members of a South Florida child welfare oversight board expressed frustration Thursday morning that the teen had been moved far from home, and no one in her new county was responsible for ensuring her welfare. “We’re a small community down there; we’re not talking about Miami-Dade,” said Alexsa Leto, who heads the Monroe County office of the state’s Guardian-ad-Litem Program, which matches vulnerable children with court-appointed advocates. “And we didn’t know the child was there.”

Leto, who is a member of Community Based Care Alliance, which oversees foster care and adoption programs in Miami-Dade and Monroe, said there was a “breakdown” between regions of the state that send foster kids to other regions, and sometimes neglect to inform their counterparts that the children require supervision. “That’s sort of alarming,” Leto said. “It makes me worry about what the checks and balances are.”

Jackie Gonzalez, the president of Miami’s privately run foster care agency, Our Kids, said her group was unable to help the teen, as caseworkers were not made aware of her presence in South Florida until weeks after she arrived. When a caseworker went to visit Lauryn, she was gone, having just run away.

After Naika Venant’s death garnered national attention, the Department of Children & Families produced a 20-page ‘critical incident rapid response’ report, and released it widely. The report on Lauryn was less than three full pages.

“This child was brought to Monroe County by another provider and placed in that youth shelter,” Gonzalez said. “Our Kids and Wesley House did not know about this until weeks later.” Wesley House works with children in state care under contract with Our Kids, which oversees child welfare under contract with DCF.

Lauryn was the first of two foster children to take their own lives in December and January. On Dec. 15, she tied a wide, blue-patterned scarf around her neck and hanged herself from a bathroom doorway. A DCF report said Lauryn died on Dec. 20. The Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s office, which performed an autopsy, reported the date of her death as Dec. 23, after her lungs, liver and kidneys were harvested for transplantation.

Thirty eight days later, 14-year-old Naika Venant tied a scarf around her neck, too, and hanged herself in the bathroom of her Miami Gardens foster home. She live-streamed the suicide on Facebook, as friends watched in horror or disbelief. While their manner of death was the same, little else was after they died.

After Naika’s death garnered national attention, the Department of Children & Families produced a 20-page “critical incident rapid response” report, and released it widely. The report on Lauryn was less than three full pages, and left more questions than answers.

At Thursday morning’s meeting, a Florida International University social work professor, board member Jennifer Abeloff, said she was “surprised” the oversight group had never openly discussed the teen’s suicide.

Board members also wondered why DCF had not asked the kinds of probing questions about Lauryn that they had about Naika. “That bothers me,” Leto said.

Charles Scherer, DCF’s director of Family and Community Services in Miami, told the oversight group that Naika was the subject of a “Critical Incident Rapid Response Team,” or CIRRT, report because the agency had recently verified an abuse or neglect allegation involving her. Lauryn had not. Under state law, DCF was not required to perform the same kind of investigation.

Nevertheless, Scherer said, “we are looking into it. We have an open investigation.”

Statewide, DCF has an array of procedures in place to help track children who are moved from region to region, and to ensure their needs are met, Scherer said. In Lauryn’s case, he added, “what we have to look at is accountability.”