On January 22, 2017, Naika Venant a 14-year-old girl committed suicide while in the care of the Florida child welfare system in Miami. She streamed the progression of her self inflicted death on Facebook Live for over two hours from the bathroom of her foster home. Horrifically, there were a reported 1,000 views which should have brought attention and help to Naika, but the opposite happened. Instead of supporting her, deterring her from killing herself, reaching out for help she was mocked and criticized. Only one friend who saw her live stream contacted the police to get help for Naika in her foster home. However, due to confusion on her current address it was too late.
According to an article in The Miami Herald, Naika became involved in the child welfare system in 2009. She was placed in multiple different foster homes and shuffled between the placements and reunification with her mother. She was allegedly raped in one of her foster homes by another child and was struggling with severe emotional and behavioral challenges for which she reportedly did not receive mental health treatment to address. Naika was reportedly reunited with her mother in July, 2014; however, due to behavioral and safety concerns, such as running away from her mother’s home, she reentered foster care in 2016. The rationale behind the reentry was to get the mental health treatment she desperately needed. From reentry in April 2016 to her unfortunate and untimely death Naika was placed in 10 different foster care homes.
Unfortunately, it is one of many stories of a youth’s traumatic history in the child welfare system; a story of an adolescent in foster care who endures sexual assault, lack of stability and minimal to no mental health treatment that ends tragically. There are many extraordinary aspects about this story that compels me to examine it more closely. In reading the news articles, I feel dumbfounded by the general comments. To be fair, it is worth mentioning that there were many comments that included an individual’s attempt at exploring the issue to understand the impact of her tumultuous past and how she came to the decision to commit suicide while streaming live. However, there were others who not only did not care to find meaning but were completely void of compassion for this young girl. Below is a specific example:
“She got what she wanted”; a comment that stands out to me as a clinical social worker. What many people do not understand is that having suicidal thoughts, as many suicidal individuals report, may not mean they want to die. It may mean they need a resolution of a difficult problem or issue, or they may just desire a listening ear. I am left questioning, particularly about this incident directly, how one’s moral judgment about another individual lacks compassion. As I read more stories about this tragedy, I see this lack of mercy for the plight of others. For example, only one of the 1000 viewers reached out to authorities for help for Naika during the live stream of her suicide. It was a friend who saw the live stream and reached out to police to help her while many others felt the need to mock and taunt her in the comment section of the Facebook Live post (currently removed from the site).
Additionally, why do the individuals who commented on the on-line article feel the need to be so judgmental of others? Are they looking to shame others? Here is an example of the comment section of the article
In my search for compassion for others in our society, especially for those who are in distress like Naika and her mother, it feels like it becomes harder and harder to find. I find more people who shame others and through their on-line persona are willing to do just that!
Unfortunately, in our western society, many opinions about those in need (i.e. poor, mentally ill, homeless) are to blame or shame others for what they have or haven’t been able to overcome in order to be successful. The idea that you alone are the reason for your problems in your life, versus a contemplation of how lives are shaped by interactions within the social environment. As a licensed clinical social worker, I face this struggle to justify my work with children and families. I am asked quite often ‘how do you work with parents who abused or neglected their children? How do you work with youth who are committing crimes, assaulting others and defying the limits set for them? Aren’t parents that abuse their children “evil”?’
My answer is simple….compassion and understanding. I look beyond behavior to seek an understanding of why the behavior exists. I attempt to look into what has happened in their lives that shapes the way they behave. Many people, mainly outside of my line of work, do not understand my thinking or feel the same. I feel that the social construction of labels can be dangerous and can create a moral stance that people are alone responsible for their own circumstances. The philosopher Ian Hacking (1991) in The Making and Molding of Child Abuse, explains this clearly. He states
people are affected by what we call them and, more importantly, by the classifications within which they can describe their own actions and make their own constrained choices. People act and decide under new descriptions, and as new possibilities for description emerge, so do new kinds of action p.254
I do not believe that Naika was a youth who just woke up on that Sunday morning and thought she would be better off dead. She was most likely a young girl looking for relief from the pain of being subjected to harsh punishment, respite from the memories of her sexual assault, and release from the feelings of rejection from caregivers and a system that failed her. She needed compassion and did not find it in her final moments in life. Naika is not unlike many youth in foster care who are currently experiencing the same thoughts. May she rest in peace.
How to Help
Children and youth in foster care placements are an at-risk population for suicide due to various risk factors such as insecure attachment, poor parenting, child abuse/neglect and traumatic events. If you know a youth who needs assistance and is or has present thoughts about suicide or harming themselves, click here for resources for youth suicide prevention, risk factors, and nationwide hotline.