Naika Venant, 14-year-old Florida Girl Who Live-streamed her Suicide, Was Prescribed Drug that Carried Suicide Warning

When a Miami psychologist examined Naika Venant in June 2015, she found a “depressed, angry and fearful young girl” who thought often about death and dying. “She expects people to abandon and betray her,” the psychologist wrote.

Terilee Wunderman diagnosed Naika with “significant depression,” and post-traumatic stress disorder, and recommended that she see a specially trained therapist to mend her broken psyche. Wunderman also warned against filling the 12-year-old with pills, because the medication she was taking “sometimes can cause the side-effect of depression.”

During the next 18 months, however, Naika’s doctors reached for the prescription pad again and again, increasing the dose of an ADHD medication, and adding another drug, Zoloft, records indicate. The anti-depressant comes with a critical warning: an increased risk of suicide in children.

Naika had been prescribed both drugs when she took her own life on Jan. 22, hanging herself in the bathroom of her foster home while streaming the suicide on Facebook Live. The Zoloft dose had been doubled on Dec. 8, records show.

In death, she joined a little boy named Gabriel Myers, also born in 2002, in a rare and haunting distinction: Florida foster children who hanged themselves while prescribed drugs linked to a heightened risk of suicide.

Zoloft is among a class of anti-depressants that carry a U.S. Food and Drug Administration “black box” label warning for children’s safety, the strongest advisory the federal agency issues. It’s not approved for use among children, except for youngsters with obsessive-compulsive disorders. Doctors routinely — and legally — prescribe the drug “off-label,” to treat a diagnosis for which it has not been determined to be safe and effective.

“They do black box warnings for a reason,” said James Sewell, a child welfare consultant and retired assistant commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. “It’s too much of a danger.”

“How can we allow drugs that are black-boxed and are not supposed to be used for children under a certain age because of a risk for suicide? We can’t allow that to happen. It has to be a hard-and-fast rule,” said Sewell, who chaired a 2009 commission that investigated Gabriel Myers’ death.

Agency self-evaluation

Thomas Biegi, a spokesman for Zoloft’s parent company, Pfizer, said the black box warning includes a note to families and caregivers about monitoring patients for suicidal thoughts or unusual changes in behavior.

A “rapid response” review of Naika’s death undertaken by the Department of Children & Families acknowledged that her volatile behavior, worsened by her unstable environment, made it difficult for caregivers to navigate “a complex behavioral health system.” While other children on risky psychiatric medication have vigilant parents to heed warning signs, Naika had a parade of caregivers, some lasting only days.

Good parents wouldn’t allow a child to be treated like that, Sewell said. “Why should we be any different.”

Shortly after Naika died, the Miami Herald filed a petition in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, asking Judge Maria Sampedro-Iglesia to release thousands of pages of records that detail the girl’s eight-year odyssey toggling back and forth between state care and living with her mother. Sampedro-Iglesia ordered the records released, saying there was good cause for the public to review them. The documents chart Naika’s path from a too-chaotic childhood to a too-soon death.

DCF declined to discuss Naika’s medication history with a Herald reporter, though an agency spokeswoman did issue a detailed written statement, and answered questions by email. “DCF does not prescribe medication, only doctors do that. Any assertion that DCF determines what medication children take is absolutely false,” Secretary Mike Carroll said in the statement.

Scott Segal, who doubled the Zoloft dosage as the last psychiatrist to work with Naika, according to the records, did not respond to several phone calls. Nor did Segal’s then-colleague, Alon Seifan, who previously continued an existing Zoloft prescription for Naika’s depression. In the same documentation, he acknowledged the danger of suicidal thoughts.

Gabriel Myers was removed from his mother’s care in June 2008 when his mom was found slumped inside her car at a Broward County restaurant, a stash of illegal narcotics scattered around her. Investigators determined that a 14-year-old boy in Ohio earlier had molested Gabriel after reaching inside his pants. Gabriel, reports say, had begun to act out sexually on other children with whom he came into contact.

As his 10 months in foster care unfolded, caregivers realized the youngster’s difficult past had left him scarred and unmanageable, portending a fraught future. On April 16, 2009, Gabriel locked himself in the bathroom of his Margate foster home and wrapped a detachable shower hose around his neck. By the time his teenage caregiver broke into the bathroom with a screwdriver, Gabriel was unresponsive.

In their report, members of the Gabriel Myers Work Group reiterated an oft-claimed criticism: Mental health drugs are, at times, prescribed more for the convenience of “parents, teachers and other caregivers” than for the treatment of children.

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Miami Herald