Les Neuhaus – Florida Politics

Les Neuhaus

Les Neuhaus is an all-platform journalist, with specialties in print reporting and writing. In addition to Florida Politics, he freelances as a general-assignment and breaking-news reporter for most of the major national daily newspapers, along with a host of digital media, and a human rights group. A former foreign correspondent across Africa and Asia, including the Middle East, Les covered a multitude of high-profile events in chronically-unstable nations. He’s a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, in which he served as a Security Policeman, and graduated from the University of Tennessee with a B.A. in political science. He is a proud father to his daughter and enjoys spending time with his family.

Legislation would improve career education standards

A new bill would analyze career education standards and make suggestions to improve Florida’s job training programs, according to the lawmaker who proposed it Thursday.

Rep. Al Jacquet, who sponsored HB 517, said it would create a new committee within the Department of Education to strengthen the state education system and help ensure Floridians would have an opportunity to gain the skills they need to in order to provide a better living for themselves and their families.

“Access to quality job training programs is a key ingredient for giving Floridians greater opportunities to get good-paying jobs,” Jaquet said. “Economic security leads to stronger families. Improving career education will help Florida’s workers learn the skills they need to help them break out of the cycle of poverty.”

The bill’s language says the Commissioner of Education may establish an advisory committee for the purpose of reviewing and evaluating the standards developed by the Department of Education for career education programs.

The committee must be composed of an odd number of members who represent the public and private sectors and who are appointed by the Commissioner of Education and the Chancellor of the Division of Career and Adult Education.

The bill would take effect July 1, 2017, if passed. It has three committees to be heard first.

Emails continue to hound Andrew Gillum; fundraising invitation among newest trove

A slowly simmering email kerfuffle is turning into a close-to-uncomfortably hot scandal for Democratic Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who announced his candidacy for Florida governor in 2018 last month.

Another email has been unearthed revealing he used state equipment as a means for campaigning, which is an ethics violation in the state of Florida.

The email in question invited a host of people to a Florida Democratic fundraiser, according to The Tallahassee Democrat.

“Last month, the city of Tallahassee turned over 60 emails sent through software purchased by NGP Van, a company that provides technology to Democratic campaigns and causes,” the newspaper reported. “Several of the emails had political messages, including one inviting people to a 2016 campaign appearance by then-Vice President Joe Biden in Tallahassee.”

Now another 50 emails have been turned over to the newspaper after a records request, the newspaper reported.

“One, however, was an invitation to the FDP fundraiser at the home of then-Party Chair Allison Tant,” according to the Democrat. “U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson was the special guest; the event was chaired by Gillum, then vice-chair of the state party. Tickets were available at various sponsorship levels, from $50 up to $1,000.”

The Democrat reported $6,850 had been spent by the mayor’s office on the NGP Van software and included $4,965 from the city’s general fund and $1,875 in leftover campaign money that the mayor rolled into his office account.
He was forced to publicly capitulate, apologizing on the same day he filed to run for Florida governor. Gillum has stated previously the emails were his fault.

A criminal investigation was started after a man in Jefferson County sent a complaint to Leon County State Attorney Jack Campbell, who notified the sheriff.

“The investigation is progressing and we are continuing to obtain records,” Lt. Grady Jordan, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office, said Thursday, according to the Democrat.

The Tallahassee mayor has stated he is fully willing to cooperate with the investigation.

The latest emails brought forth fresh rebukes from conservatives, the Democrat reported.

“This is another egregious breach of the public trust,” Leon County Republican Party Chair Evan Power said. “When Mayor Gillum apologized for his other inappropriate emails he continued to hide these records from his constituents.”

The Republican Governor’s Association added their voice to the mix:  “Gillum has clearly demonstrated he cannot be trusted to tell the truth or follow the law.”

Andy Janecek, Leon County DEC chair, added: “Republicans continue to do and say anything to distract from the disastrous failures of the Trump presidency. The city has been reimbursed and it’s time for Evan Power to get a new hobby. Professional trolling won’t help put anyone back to work or make sure every Floridian has access to health care.”

Documentary on Florida’s troubled foster care system draws big St. Pete crowd

A new film focusing on Florida’s troubled foster care system drew a large crowd at a screening in Gulfport Wednesday night.

Foster Shock’ is a documentary highlighting the ills of the state’s child welfare system showed how a government body had completely turned over the responsibility and care of children to contracted, for-profit companies, who, in turn, contract out the work to other companies, exposing minors to dangers such as violence, drugs, sex trafficking and criminalization.

Directed by Mari Frankel and narrated by Tim Malloy, with cinematography by Brian Bayerl, Foster Shock takes the viewer inside the world of foster children after they are yanked from their homes. They screened the movie at Stetson Law School in Gulfport to a packed room.

Frankel, who once worked as a Guardian ad Litem in Palm Beach County, addressed those in attendance, setting the mood for the film. She told the story of the first child she advocated — a 12-year-old boy with special needs who had been sexually abused in his foster home. After she came and got the boy, the caseworker was nonchalantly prepared to put the young man back in the same home.

That didn’t happen, Frankel said, but soon after that, another child was placed in that home and was sexually abused, even though Department of Children and Families staff knew of the earlier sexual abuse.

“We need to raise the bar, and we need to raise the bar high,” she said. “We need to know that we can make a change. I know it doesn’t take legislation to be caring, to be loving.”

Sometimes the parents screwed up or are abusive. Sometimes, children are just prematurely or wrongly removed from their homes. No matter what, they often wind up being placed in settings that were worse than where they came from, enduring life-scarring traumas.

At one hour, seven minutes, the film follows the stories of several young adults who “aged out” of the foster car system or in a couple of lucky instances, were adopted and allowed to flourish to be who they wanted to be — something they were not able to do in the prisonlike group homes scattered across the state, housing thousands of children due to a lack of housing placements.

In the homes, privacy is nonexistent; fights are commonplace; staff abuse is rampant and inappropriately large dosages of psychotropic drugs are forced onto children by staff lacking any kind of credentials.

While film does a good job of portraying group homes, it mentions nothing of the murders, killings and ongoing deaths occurring throughout the state on a routine basis under the care of the so-called “CBCs,” or community-based care agencies, like Our Kids of Miami-Dade Monroe, Eckerd Youth Alternatives, Community Partnership for Children, Inc., etc., who continue to have the contracts with DCF renewed, despite the continuing deaths.

Meanwhile, filmmakers say CEOs of CBCs are grossly overpaid — as an example, David Dennis, the chief executive officer of Eckerd, made $708,028 in fiscal year 2015.

After the screening, four young adults in their late teens and mid-20s fielded questions from a Pinellas County dependency judge, sharing their experiences with the crowd.

Bay Pines VA Center recognized for work with LGBTQ community

A leading global human rights organization is honoring Bay Pines VA Healthcare System as a “Leader in LGBTQ Healthcare Equality” among nearly 600 hospitals participating in a national survey.

A representative for the facility, officially known as the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center, announced the award Wednesday.

The Human Rights Campaign Foundation, the educational arm of the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer civil rights organization, based their findings in the 10th edition of the Healthcare Equality Index (HEI), reflecting on a decade of progress in LGBTQ health care.

“Our designation as a Leader in LGBTQ Healthcare Equality for the fifth year in a row is a true reflection of our commitment to providing all Veterans with high-quality, equitable health care services,” Jason Dangel, public affairs officer at the facility, told FloridaPolitics.com Tuesday. “More simply, all veterans can expect to receive the same level of care regardless of sexual orientation, preference and gender identity.  This approach to care is reflected in our local policies and through the work accomplished by our dedicated health care professionals every day.”

A record 590 health care facilities actively participated in the HEI 2017 survey. Of those facilities, about 45 were VA medical centers. In addition to active survey participants, the HRC Foundation proactively researched key policies at more than 900 nonparticipating hospitals. For those included in the HEI, 302 earned a “Leader in LGBTQ Healthcare Equality” designation.

“We are extremely proud of being recognized as a national leader in health care equality by the HRC for the fifth year in a row,” Suzanne M. Klinker, director of Bay Pines VAHCS, said in a statement. “The designation received from the HRC demonstrates our commitment to equitable, inclusive care for all Veterans and aligns with our strategic goal of becoming a 5-star organization in health care quality and customer service..”

Other VA facilities recognized by HRC in Florida include the Miami VA Healthcare SystemOrlando VA Medical Center, and James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital located in Tampa.

The 10th edition of the HEI implements new criteria that raise the bar on what it takes to earn HRC’s “Leader in LGBTQ Healthcare Equality” designation. For the first time ever, HEI participants are given scores in four criteria that represent how many policies and best practices from each section they have implemented: foundational elements of LGBTQ patient-centered care, LGBTQ Patient Services and Support, Employee Benefits and Policies, and LGBTQ Patient and Community Engagement. Participants that receive the maximum score in each section for a total score of 100 points earn the coveted status of “2017 Leader in LGBTQ Healthcare Equality.”

In the 2017 report, an impressive 302 facilities — 51 percent of those actively participating in the survey — met the more challenging criteria to earn this designation. Another 145 facilities received the “Top Performer” designation for scoring from 80 to 95 points. With 76 percent of actively participating facilities scoring 80 points or more, it is clear that health care facilities are going beyond the basics in adopting policies and practices in LGBTQ care.

Of the hospitals who did not participate in the HEI but were scored based on research, only 61 percent have policies that include both “sexual orientation” and “gender identity,” and only 52 percent were found to have an LGBTQ-inclusive employment nondiscrimination policy. The equal visitation policy, at 95 percent, is the only one that comes close to matching the rate of the participating facilities.

“The 2017 HEI reminds us again that though we have made tremendous gains over the past decade, there is still much more work left for us to do. With some of our biggest battles still ahead of us, it is crucial that institutions continue to demonstrate that the march toward full equality is not slowing down,” said HRC President Chad Griffin. “The 590 participants in this year’s HEI continue this march in partnership with the LGBTQ community. For the past decade, the HEI has been the road map to closing the gap in ensuring equal care to LGBTQ patients and their families, and we urge every health care facility to join us in this continuing effort to provide inclusive care to all.”

For more information about the Healthcare Equality Index 2016, or to download a free copy of the report, visit www.hrc.org/hei.

2015 redux? House committee hotly debates, passes redistricting reform

Legislation intended as a “what if’ scenario for potential snags in future political redistricting received a fair amount of blowback from several House committee members.

Nevertheless, the House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee passed the bill Wednesday.

HB 953, sponsored by Rep. Larry Ahern, received a thorough level of skepticism and interrogation due to a knee-jerk reaction to the proposal’s context: legislative redistricting and Congressional reapportionment.

“It really just asks the courts to speed up the process as the law would allow us to do …,” Ahern explained.

In 2015, controversy swirled around the remapping of the state’s districts, which were ultimately redrawn by a court.

Ahern’s bill would require a court to provide for an expedited hearing and ruling in a scenario in which a challenge to the state’s legislative or congressional district boundaries was to be brought forth.

According to Ahern, his bill “attempts to provide clarity regarding, which legislative and congressional maps must be used when redistricting challenges are unresolved and upcoming elections are imminent,” he said.

“The bill also encourages the courts to set immediate hearings and act as expeditiously as possible to resolve any challenges to legislative or congressional districts. In addition, the bill encourages the courts to follow a standard procedure to help maintain transparency and public oversight to the drafting of a remedial redistricting map.”

The bill would also establish a deadline for resolving potential legislative and congressional challenges.

Ahern continued: “For legislative challenges, the bill states that if revisions are ordered after the 71st day before the upcoming primary election, those revisions will not take effect until the next future election. For congressional challenges of revisions are ordered after noon 116 days before a primary election, then a congressional candidate must requalify in accordance with the revised districts during the qualifying period that begins 71 days before the primary election. The bill also states that its provisions do not supersede or impair the state constitutional provisions governing the judicial review of apportionment.”

The comment drew a host of quirky faces. The floor was opened to debate after a member of the public, Ben Wilcox of Common Cause Florida, took the podium.

“We just don’t really understand why this bill is needed,” Wilcox said to the committee. “Case law was evident when we went through redistricting in the last round. It was pretty clear and seemed like it worked.”

Rep. David Richardson backed up the sentiment, asking what the impetus was for the proposal.

“Help me understand — what’s the reason that we need to do this, what’s the urgent need?” Richardson asked.

Ahern said: “I think it’s a result of the lessons learned from the previous election where it went on in the Senate in additional time, and years, as it were, and that again the people deserve more certainty when and with who they will be voting within their districts … and really this just says to the courts, and to those who might bring (a law) suit they need to do so quickly in order to resolve it before the qualifying period … and really just says, ‘After the qualifying period everything will be suspended,’ and that’s not clear right now, obviously, since they continue to go into more litigation after that.” “This makes it clear that won’t happen.”

“This makes it clear that won’t happen,” he added.

After 30 more minutes of debate, the vote was taken and voted favorably 10-3.

The bill has two more committees to move through before being heard on the House floor.

Fair Districts Coalition attorney Thomas Zehnder issued a six-point  response Wednesday afternoon to the proposed strike-all amendment on the HB 953 redistricting bill:

(1) The attempt to preclude further review of legislative districts after the Art. III, Sec 16 expedited facial review process is a blatant effort to write the FairDistricts Amendments out of the constitution and permit the sort of gerrymandering that Florida’s citizens have overwhelmingly forbidden.  If the process of reviewing legislative districts had been shut down after the initial Florida Supreme Court review of the 2012 maps, the Legislature would have gotten away with its conspiracy.  There is no discovery in the Supreme Court, and the challengers and Court were left to rely on the sanitized public record.  As a result, the Legislature slipped by with its assurances of an open and transparent process.  If that was the end of the process, the conspiracy would not have been uncovered, and the public would be left with gerrymandered legislative districts for a decade without any avenue of recourse.

(2) The 60-day limitation period is unreasonably short, is a bald effort to avoid scrutiny, and it infringes on the public’s right of access to the courts.  As the 2012 litigation shows, it often takes time to uncover improper conduct over the opposition of legislators and consultants.  A 60-day limit creates an incentive for legislature to stonewall discovery and delay handing over public records to “run out the clock.”

(3) The proposed bill runs afoul of Florida Supreme Court precedent recognizing the right of litigants to bring fact-based challenges.  In Apportionment III, the Court ruled that the constitutional framework envisions trial courts being open to fact-based challenges that cannot be properly resolved in an Art. III, Sec 16 facial review that does not have the benefit of discovery.

(4) The proposed bill would infringe on the Florida Supreme Court’s exclusive authority over practice and procedure, including by requiring courts to consolidate proceedings.

(5) The automatic stay provision is an unconstitutional attempt to close access to courts.  The stay process would effectively give the legislature at least one “free” election under unconstitutional maps if election deadlines adopted by the legislature cannot be met.  It should be left to the judiciary — not the self-interested legislature — to decide whether elections should proceed under old or new maps and to adjust statutory deadlines as necessary to comply with constitutional mandates.

(6) The provision requiring cross-examination of judges/justices is an assault on the independence of the judiciary.  The 2012 litigation was an open and fair proceeding.  Attempting to have a judge be both a neutral decision maker and a fact witness subject to cross-examination is unprecedented, unworkable, and smacks of retaliation.  It is also an infringement on the judiciary’s authority over practice and procedure.

New rankings show healthiest and least healthy counties in Florida; St. Johns the healthiest

Which counties were the healthiest and most unhealthy throughout the Sunshine State?

St. Johns County ranked first in both key indexes used by the seventh annual county health rankings by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which partners with the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute to work with communities around the country to take a  snapshot and learn how our environments affect us.

It was St. Johns County’s six consecutive year taking both the “health outcomes” category, which accounts for length and quality of life, and “health factors,” a complex metric comprised of lifestyle habits, access to medical care, area socioeconomics and the physical and the physical environment around us.

Collier, Sarasota, Seminole and Martin counties round out the top five health outcomes. In health factors, Sarasota, Martin, Seminole and Collier round out the top five in that index.

So those are the healthiest.

Which are the unhealthiest?

Gadsden and Union counties are at or near the bottom again.

The rankings use self-reported information, factoring in natural and unnatural deaths — both intentional and unintentional. Smoking, traffic, car accidents, alcohol consumption and much more are used in the data.

The biggest surprise, said Aliana Havrilla, a community coach with County Health Rankings and Roadmaps? Deaths of younger generations are on the rise.

“Drugs are a big factor in the category,” Havrilla told FloridaPolitics.com Tuesday. “This is a key trend we’re seeing right now.”

Havrilla said that what their researchers are learning is that where we live definitely has an influence on us.

The 2016 rankings examined the differences between rural and urban influences on how humans live.

“The rankings help to see where the counties are doing well and where improvements are needed,” the community coach said.

All resources used in the rankings are available online at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation website.

House advances pilot program to treat mental health versus jail

A House committee voted unanimously Tuesday in favor of a bill to begin the Forensic Hospital Diversion Pilot Program in the Panhandle’s Okaloosa County.

Rep. Mel Ponder, who sponsored HB 1051, introduced the measure to the House Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee. The bill intends to alleviate overcrowding in the state’s prison corrections system with a significant percentage of individuals with mental health needs.

Often, those individuals go ignored while incarcerated.

“We believe those inmates would be better served with treatment rather than jail time,” Ponder said. “This is an extremely important bill and while it calls for no funding comes with it, it does start the process.”

Ponder cited fully one-quarter of Okaloosa’s inmates had some sort of mental health need, with the county ranking first in the region for such an issue.

“When I heard we were the No. 1 county in northwest Florida, it just lit my fire even more,” he said.

One constituent approached the podium, telling committee members: “Nationally, much has been done about this problem, but in Florida, we rank 49th in the nation. Our jails have been the depository for our residents with mental health problems.”

Treating mental health problems lowers recidivism and jail overcrowding, Ponder said, with many needing such services coming from veteran and juvenile population segments.

According to the constituent, it costs Okaloosa County $50 a day to house an inmate and $120 a day, meanwhile, mental health treatment is $17 a day, on average.

Committee member Rep. Barry Russell commended Ponder for the bill.

“It’s very timely and cost effective,” Russell said. “I commend you for the work out into this and think it is deserving of our attention.”

Tuesday was the final meeting of the subcommittee in the Legislative Session.

Police and firefighter organizations give nod to Darden Rice

Two key first responders’ groups are giving support to St. Petersburg City Council Chair Darden Rice in her bid for re-election to the city body, according to a press release Tuesday.

The Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association and the St. Petersburg Association of Firefighters issued a joint statement praising Rice’s commitment to the city.

“I’m deeply honored to have the support of our police officers and firefighters,” Rice, who represents St. Petersburg’s 4th District, said in the statement. “The work these public servants do every day to keep our city safe is extraordinary and deeply appreciated. I look forward to continuing the progress we’ve made.”

She was elected to office in November 2013, representing 10 precincts.

Rice announced her bid for re-election in February, raising more than $23,000 in the following two weeks, Tuesday’s statement said.

“Darden is a strong leader we can count on,” Richard Pauley, president of the St. Petersburg Association of Firefighters, also said in the press release. “We know she will continue to honorably serve the citizens of St. Petersburg and the interests of the men and women in the Fire and Emergency Medical Services.”

Rice defeated neurosurgeon and Tea Party activist David McKalip in 2013.

She is a strong favorite to be re-elected, no candidates opposing her yet for the August primary.

“We are proud to endorse Darden,” George Lofton, president of the Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association, said in the statement. “She’s a trusted ally of our officers and a vocal supporter of safer streets and stronger neighborhoods on council. Darden understands the crucial role our police officers play in making our city safer and we look forward to continuing to work with her.”

In January, Rice, 46, announced she has begun treatment for breast cancer.

Did Florida DCF create media frenzy after foster child’s suicide to distract from agency errors?

Gina Alexis and daughter Naika Venant (Photo courtesy Gina Alexis)

Naika Venant’s mother vehemently refutes narratives by the state agency in a March 13 report, including suggestion she ‘allegedly’ commented on Facebook Live thread taunting daughter while watching and did nothing; lawyer says agencies ‘abysmally failed’ Naika.


Naika Venant was a girl whose personality had turned from that of a bright and gifted child – despite her naïveté toward adult subject matter – to one of rebelliousness and anger, according to records and her mother.

The dark transition leading her down the path to suicide in January at the tender age of 14 was fraught with complexity, her life taking an unrecoverable nose-dive, her biological mother argued, following the months in 2009 when Naika was repeatedly raped and molested during the first of three tumultuous tours through Florida’s foster-care system in Miami-Dade County.

During a nearly four-hour phone interview Sunday with Gina Alexis, the bereaved mother chronicled her daughter’s life, wanting to clear the air on many issues she claimed were misreported in the press or by the agencies tasked with the safety and well-being of her daughter through the Department of Children and Families (DCF) – Our Kids of Miami-Dade Monroe and the Center for Family and Child Enrichment (CFCE).

Since the early morning hours of Jan. 22, when Naika – medicated on 50 mg of Adderall and 50 mg of Zoloft daily, per a doctor’s directives just weeks before on Dec. 8 – put a scarf around her neck and ended her life, small but significant details have trickled out into the public domain.

There’s a contradiction between DCF’s assertion in the CIRRT (Critical Incident Rapid Response Team) report the teen was in capable hands at the time of her death and facts laid bare in more than 3,500 pages of documents released just two days after the CIRRT report, which include police records, psychological evaluations, foster home placement files and exchanges between a caseworker and Alexis.

On basic thematic levels, there are parallels between the trove of thousands of pages of documents released by DCF – following a judge’s order after The Miami Herald fought the agency in a court of law to do so – and the account described by Alexis during the interview with FloridaPolitics.com on Sunday.

She was frank in discussing her daughter’s gravitation toward age-inappropriate sexual behavior, her attempts at trying to rid her daughter of poor behavior picked up in foster homes when reunited with Naika and the frustration of being re-admitted to a system that controlled their every move and set unrealistic expectations at times.

And Alexis was beholden to Naika’s rebelliousness, she said, which included sometimes lying about abuse to authorities when she wouldn’t get her way or when she was punished because she knew her mother was deathly scared of DCF.

Punishments usually included having her tablet or cellphone taken, which would send Naika into uncontrollable fits – one so bad she ran out of the house and didn’t immediately come back. When Alexis called the police to help her, they found Naika and brought her home. But when Naika got out of the police car, she claimed her mother would beat her again, prompting yet another intrusive DCF investigation, the mother said.

In another instance, Naika burned herself, went to school the next day and told her teacher that her mother did it to her, Alexis said Sunday.

When an investigation followed, they wound up giving polygraphs, Alexis said, and the truth came out that Naika had lied to her teacher and child protection workers.

The mother was absolved of any wrongdoing in that instance.

She described the cycle of dealing with DCF as a “merciless merry-go-round.”

But she readily admits to what introduced them to the child welfare system in the first place.

In early 2009, Alexis came home and caught another 4-year-old girl giving Naika oral sex.

“I whooped her; there’s no denying it,” she said. Alexis lost her temper and pelted Naika with a belt, leaving around 30 lashes all over her body.

It was in Naika’s first foster home following this episode that she was molested and raped by an older foster teen.

Gina Alexis and daughter Naika Venant (Photo courtesy Gina Alexis)

The Facebook comment

Much of the child welfare summary part of the CIRRT report focused on Alexis, known then to DCF officials by her maiden surname – Caze.

Following the report’s first two pages – a cover page and a table of contents to the 20-page report – is the executive summary. On the first page of the report’s contents, DCF detailed a comment left under Alexis’s name.

Rather than beginning the report with other standard information in the executive summary, the department chose to feature prominently an “abuse report” made Feb. 9 by an unnamed source – more than two weeks after Naika died, claiming a comment “allegedly” written by Alexis “could be considered mentally injurious to her suicidal child and failed to seek help” for Naika.

The fact DCF stated in two separate paragraphs that “she wrote” the comment, then in the next paragraph of the CIRRT cited it was “allegedly written” by Alexis, both of which contradict each other.

FloridaPolitics.com chose not to republish the comment, having written a story on the topic previously when the CIRRT was released.

And according to Alexis, no one from DCF has contacted her since her daughter’s death to verify the comment, not even to extend an apology. (And she was never notified about the change in dosages of her daughter’s medication on Dec. 8.)

However, based on the comment, DCF elevated their reaction as a department.

“Upon receipt of the abuse report, the special review assignment was reclassified as a Critical Incident Rapid Response Team (CIRRT) response as there was a verified prior report involving the child and her mother within 12 months of Naika’s death,” the report stated

It’s unclear why the suicide of a teen girl on psychotropic prescriptions, who had broadcast it live via social media to a viewership of more than 1,000 people five weeks after another teen girl – in the same area, also with a using a scarf in a shower stall, and both under the care of Our Kids – wasn’t enough in itself to warrant a CIRRT response.

However, DCF did reply to an email by FloridaPolitics.com.

“CIRRT reports include a summary of the call made to the abuse hotline reporting the death of a child due to suspected abuse, neglect or abandonment,” Jessica Sims, DCF spokeswoman, said Monday.

Up to that point, DCF only knew the comment existed, but apparently failed or chose not, to verify its origin.

“They are making me out to be a monster,” Alexis said by phone from Miami, sobbing. “It’s not true.”

She stated the video of her daughter began at approximately 10:59 p.m. and she posted her comment at approximately 1:15 a.m., without knowing Naika was already gone, as she had just begun to receive a barrage of texts from friends telling her to check on Naika through her Facebook page.

“I didn’t taunt her – I didn’t know what she was even doing yet – I thought it was a hoax because when I saw it other people were saying it was fake, so I did, too,” she said. “I still haven’t seen the (video) stream to this day. In the comment, I don’t see a mother saying, ‘Do it,’ I see a mother saying, ‘Don’t – stop,’ because here’s the reality of what can happen if she did do it, and what she needed to be doing instead of playing with Facebook males and females – stick to your books. I would trade places with Naika if God said I could.”

DCF said the death was still under examination.

“The department’s death investigation is ongoing, and coordination with law enforcement continues,” Sims said. “While details are confidential at this time, a report will be posted on the department’s child fatality prevention website upon completion of the death investigation.”

Naika Venant (Photo courtesy Gina Alexis)

The texts

In a previous paragraph of the executive summary in the CIRRT, it states Naika’s sadness that “her mother didn’t want her back.” According to Alexis, she never gave up custody, and this line is from an exchange between herself and a caseworker named Tramile Barriffe, employed by CFCE.

(It’s unknown if Barriffe is still employed at CFCE. Both CFCE and Jackie Gonzalez of Our Kids did not respond to requests for comment on this or another story.)

Further, the CIRRT report claimed that in the final nine months of Naika’s life custodial parental rights still belonged to Alexis, while guardianship was in the hands of the state. But then the report states, in part, “… for the 22 months that preceded her re-entry into care, Ms. Caze relinquished custody of Naika on April 20, 2016, citing that she no longer wanted the child in her home.”

Alexis said this is a false statement and part of the intent to use her as a scapegoat.

“I would never have given her up – I never did,” Alexis said. “I was expressing my frustration at them for not doing enough. They are making me out to be a horrible mother. I never gave up my rights to her. These are red flags.”

The exchanges referred to in both the CIRRT report and by Alexis are recounted in a series of text messages between Barriffe and the mother on pages 174 through 199 on a section of police report documents – from those the judge ordered DCF to release.

On Jan. 10, Alexis sent Barriffe several texts with screen shots of Naika on Facebook engaging in sexually explicit behavior with other people.

“Please share with co-workers the judge and everyone else involved in this case… Keep the headache y’all created…,” Alexis tells Barriffe in text messages at 9:13 a.m., 1:53 p.m. and 1:56 p.m. “I will let y’all be the judge if who is good or not who been learning and who chooses not to … When in my care there wasn’t none of that she gets worse by second in y’all care …”

Barriffe responds at 3:46 p.m., saying: “Hi … I try not to make every phone call that I make to you about an incident because usually they are not good reports. I wanted to see you that’s why I have been calling to meet up with you. At this point, I let my supervisor know everything because the case isn’t moving forward. I spoke to Niaka (sic) about all the things she has posted up and that will be up to her to make better decisions. (…) I can’t tell you if all the things she posted is something she is engaging in. (…) She has to be the one to practice better decision even with all that is being provided to her.”

Alexis responds, in part: “Naika y’all problem for her to play innie minnie miny mo with through homes I’m done with the games may God be with you all… Bless”

Barriffe goes on to say there would be a new case worker handling Naika, something Alexis cited as a problem throughout the 28 total months her daughter spent in foster care, as every three to four months they would have to acclimate to a new caseworker, making continuity “impossible,” she said.

“The department contracts with community-based care lead agencies and the lead agencies contract for case management,” Sims said. Accordingly, the department cannot speak directly to actions taken by case managers.

Placing blame by negative portrayal?

Howard Talenfeld, a child advocacy attorney and president of Florida Children First, said the caseworker was making an unrealistic presumption.

“This girl was 14 with therapeutic needs, bouncing from placement to placement on psychotropic medication, and this caseworker expects her to be making mature decisions on her own?” Talenfeld said by phone from Ft. Lauderdale Saturday. “The caseworker basically threw her hands up in the air and said, ‘I’m done.'”

Barriffe was transitioning from the office, according to DCF.

“The records indicate that the child’s case manager was changed due to the need to work towards transitioning to independent living/extended foster care,” said Sims, the department’s spokeswoman. “Also, as documented in the case notes, it is our understanding that the case manager communicated directly with the child regarding her social media use.”

That shouldn’t have mattered, in Talenfeld’s view. The placement was wrong, he said.

“Naika shouldn’t have been anywhere near a cellphone or the internet,” he said. “It looks like the private agencies involved are trying to deflect the responsibility of providing safe and therapeutic care for Naika and are now trying to blame Ms. Alexis. They’re responsible for the placement of foster care – they have abysmally failed in doing it in this case, and she had severe therapeutic needs.”

With reference to the rapes and sexual abuse in the foster home from 2009 by a then-15-year-old boy named Tevin (an adult now): DCF claimed in the CIRRT report, which was released two days before the 3,500-plus pages of confidential case history, DCF stated, “Naika was placed there and had no prior incidents of inappropriate behavior, nor any subsequent incidents following this allegation.”

Then DCF claimed in the CIRRT report a medical evaluation at that time from a child protection team didn’t find evidence consistent with rape or molestation. The very next sentence switches subjects, commenting how the mother and daughter became “hostile,” about the reasons bringing them into contact with DCF in the first place.

It wasn’t clear if DCF went back and thoroughly examined the case files on the 2009 situation as a part of its research in issuing the CIRRT report, as Alexis said she took Naika to Charlee, in Miami, a now-defunct facility providing services to abused children.

“It’s a lie,” Alexis said. “She had a UTI (urinary tract infection) and I was like, ‘Wait a minute,’ so I took her to Charlee  because I said, ‘DCF’s got to tell me something.’”

She described how a doctor with Charlee corroborated the sexual assault. A previous caseworker named Tatiana Ashley, whose name appeared in several documents examined by FloridaPolitics.com, helped facilitate the appointment at Charlee.

Alexis claimed officials were prepared to offer compensation for the abuse that had taken place, but she said she wanted to consult with a lawyer first.

“And even before until I left the elevator in the building that they erased the whole thing once I said I wanted to talk to a lawyer,” Alexis said, making a reference to her belief agency officials were getting rid of any findings from Naika’s medical exam. “They’ve covered it up ever since. The rape happened, and they just keep covering it up, trying to place blame on me.”

Talenfeld, the lawyer, wants to know why Naika was placed in a home with two other foster children, all three sleeping in one bedroom. He also pointed out that the foster mother was brand-new and was not supposed to have children with behavioral or mental health issues.

“Was the foster mother specially trained to handle special needs children on medications?” he asked. “Did she know what signs to look for in mood, like depression? Was there internet in the home?

“There are a shortage of therapeutic placements for this kind of children who are seriously emotionally disturbed,” the attorney continued. “There are a lot of questions, no easy ones.”

FloridaPolitics.com attempted to get a comment from key state legislators on the Florida Senate’s DCF oversight committee without success.


February trial date set for John Jonchuck, accused of throwing daughter off St. Pete bridge

A Pinellas County court set a trial date for John Jonchuck, arrested in 2015 for throwing his 5-year-old daughter off a St. Petersburg bridge.

The Tampa Bay Times reported Monday that the trial will begin early February.

In a pretrial hearing Monday, Jonchuck’s three public defenders listened as Pinellas County Circuit Judge Chris Helinger announced the proceedings would begin Feb. 5, 2018, roughly three years after Jonchuck inexplicably threw Phoebe Jonchuck off the Dick Misener Bridge, according to the Times.

The case had been anticipated to begin in fall, and the attorneys from the state attorney’s office requested such, but the judge took into account treatment regimen at a state mental health hospital located in Gainesville, where he is given medicinal injections for bipolar disorder every 28 days, agencies reported.

Jonchuck was not present at Monday’s hearing, said a public information officer working for the courts. He is charged with first-degree murder.

Assistant Public Defender Jessica Manuele said her team needed more time for pretrial preparations, like depositions, the Times reported, and to speak with their client, with whom they have not had any contact in roughly two years.

The defendant was found competent to stand trial in early March.

The narrative has been that on the night of Jan. 8, 2015, Jonchuck’s white PT Cruiser was spotted speeding in traffic by an off-duty St. Petersburg police officer. Jonchuck raced to the bridge, stopping his car in traffic at a point on the bridge, taking his daughter from the car.

He reportedly held her tightly, the officer — who tried to rush and assist the girl, Phoebe — before Jonchuck held her over the railing and let go.

The crime shook area residents, prompting the Department of Children and Families to review their emergency call procedures.

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