Friday, January 27, 2017

“I Don’t Wanna Live No More”

The Florida foster-care panic did not cause Naika Venant to die. It just made it more likely

UPDATE, March 14: The Florida Department of Children and Families has now issued a report in which it portrays the birth mother as brutally abusive and neglectful. The mother’s attorney – and no friend of family preservation – Howard Talenfeld – says the report is inaccurate.

But let’s assume that the report’s portrayal of the mother is accurate. Does that let the Herald off the hook?  No way. It would mean only that the place in a good, safe foster home that should have been taken by Naika Venant instead was occupied by some other child who was a victim of the Florida Foster Care Panic and never needed to be taken away.

The overload of the system with children who don’t need to be there leaves no room in good foster homes for children in real danger. Perhaps Naika Venant was one such child; perhaps not.

Either way, the Herald and its acolytes in the Florida media, especially the Tampa Bay Times, still share responsibility for another child welfare tragedy.

            Late Saturday night Naika Venant wrote on Facebook “I Don’t Wanna Live No More.” A few hours later, she walked into a bathroom in her Miami Gardens foster home and hanged herself outside a shower stall. She livestreamed her suicide on Facebook.

            Would this tragedy have occurred even had the Miami Herald not effectively collapsed the Florida child welfare system by setting off an enormous foster-care panic? Perhaps.  But the panic made it far more likely.  And that means, once again, the Herald, and its acolytes in the Florida media, especially the Tampa Bay Times, share responsibility for a child welfare tragedy.

The roots of tragedy

            Contrary to the Herald’s claims that Florida had made too much of an effort to keep families together, the state never has done enough.

            That can be seen by how Naika came into foster care in the first place. She was seven-years-old and the allegation was “excessive corporal punishment.” That can mean many different things. But, according to the Herald, even the lawyer for Naika’s mother, Howard Talenfeld – no friend of family preservation – said, in the story’s words, that the removal “was the first time the system failed Naika.”

            I’m not sure what he meant. Since the story was co-authored by Carol Marbin Miller, obviously she won’t pursue any angle that suggests any child was taken needlessly. But, to use a phrase the Herald loves, the case “raises questions,” about whether the initial removal was necessary and/or whether there were better ways to be sure that Naika did not suffer excessive corporal punishment. (Special note to Tim Nickens of the Times, who has suggested that nearly every removal is justified because judges rubber stamp almost all of them: A judge almost certainly approved this one, too.)

            This initial removal was not the fault of the foster-care panic – it happened in 2009, while Florida actually was making progress in curbing wrongful removal.  But not enough progress.

Florida never got its rate of removal down to the level of Alabama, for example, the state that Miller herself claims, in Innocents Lost, should be a model for Florida. (Of course, her story about Alabama never actually mentioned the low rate of removal.) So even at its best, Florida was taking many children needlessly.  Now, it’s much worse.

            One thing we know for sure: What happened to Naika after the State of Florida became her parent was far worse than anything that happened  before.  She was raped by a 14-year-old boy in the same foster home.

            When Naika was returned home, her mother couldn’t cope with the emotional harm the rape had done to her daughter.  The Florida child welfare system failed to help Naika’s mother help her daughter. She ran away and was returned to foster care. Again she got no help, but was sent back to her mother in 2014.

Here’s where the panic made things worse

            And 2014 was when the Herald started the foster-care panic. So this time, when Naika ran away she was consigned to a child welfare system so overloaded with children needlessly removed that it was far less able to cope with her than before.  During just the nine months before her suicide, Naika was moved ten times.

            No wonder that, in the hours before her death, she wrote to a friend on Facebook “Im Just Tired My Life Pointless I Don’t Wanna Do This Any More.”

            Of course the Herald and the Tampa Bay Times won’t face up to their role in all this. And Talenfeld isn’t helping. Instead, he’s blaming the fact that starting during the administration of former Gov. Jeb Bush Florida privatized child welfare services.

            That is, to use the polite term, nonsense.

            I’m a big government tax-and-spend liberal. I am no fan of privatizing public services.

But, as NCCPR said from the moment privatization began: It’s not good, it’s not bad – it’s irrelevant. There is no evidence from anywhere in the country that privatization makes child welfare systems better – or worse.

            Florida child welfare improved under privatization – when DCF was run by visionary leaders like Bob Butterworth and George Sheldon who emphasized safe, proven approaches to keeping families together. Then Florida got worse under privatization when their successors effectively let the Miami Herald dictate child welfare policy.

            Safe, proven alternatives to foster care make child welfare systems better. Foster-care panics make child welfare systems worse. Privatization does neither.

            And to those who are thinking: Jeez, are you going to blame every tragedy in Florida child welfare on the foster-care panic? Here’s the answer:


Not completely, of course. But foster-care panics make every kind of child welfare tragedy more likely.  So those who promote foster care panics have to share responsibility for the consequences.