Update: On Friday, December 9th, one day after this story aired, a spokesperson from the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) emailed Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone some of the records she requested pertaining to recent license renewal approvals and denials of shelters for unaccompanied migrant children. However, DCF did not provide all records LaGrone requested. A DCF spokesperson stated the agency is working to fulfill her request. LaGrone followed up with the public state agency and will provide updates as they become available.
In a state with a long history of welcoming children, whether migrant children who arrive in Florida without a guardian are still welcomed in the state remains a question even those who advocate for these children can’t answer.
“Caring for children was one of the things that Florida just has always done, said Melissa Marantes, an immigration attorney with the Orlando Center for Justice. She works with providers in Florida that temporarily house unaccompanied migrant children for the federal government. The children are often sent to the U.S. by desperate parents or other family members in Central and South America who are seeking to give the children a better life in America.
But more than a year after Governor Ron DeSantis signed an executive order prohibiting these migrant kids shelters from getting licensed by the state as part of the Governor’s response to what he dubbed “Biden’s Border Crisis,” Marantes told us several shelters in the state have already shut down their programs for unaccompanied children. All of them, she said, are faith-based organizations that helped migrant children by connecting them with foster families until they could be reunited with family in the state.
“We know when dealing with kids, especially really young kids, the family setting is the most appropriate, the least restrictive. So, it's very that this would be the settings that are closing their doors,” she explained recently.
It’s a controversy we were first to reveal last year when the Dream Center, a migrant kids shelter in Sarasota, was forced to move dozens of unaccompanied children in its care after Florida’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) refused to relicense the facility.
The shelter’s parent company, Lutheran Services of Florida, fought back and won. But a year later, with state licenses back up for renewal, the future of that shelter and the more than a dozen other migrant kids shelters across the state remains unknown.
“These are very well-performing organizations; they follow the rule of law, they do everything correctly. Yet they're caught in the crossfire in their ability to serve their kids,” explained Orlando Representative and immigrant advocate Anna Eskamani.
That crossfire recently prompted His House, migrant kids shelter in Miami, to file a legal complaint against DCF just a few months ago. The organization filed the complaint with the Division of Administrative Hearings back in September after DCF denied the facility a new license. The facility has been operating in the state since the 1990s and never had its license renewal denied until this year when DCF adopted an administrative rule mirroring the Governor’s order. According to legal documents, the shelter and DCF are now in the process of settling the case.
But it’s unclear how; no one from the shelter responded to calls and emails from Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone. In fact, no shelter for unaccompanied kids has agreed to speak out about their latest licensing battle with the state.
Several told LaGrone they are concerned about being penalized by DCF if they speak out since most work with DCF on other programs to help children and adults in need.
DCF is also staying quiet about the ongoing battle over migrant shelter licenses,
Although a records request was submitted nearly one month ago to find out how many of these shelters have been approved or denied a new license, DCF has yet to provide us with any documents.
But in an e-mail from Catholic Charities of Miami, which also operates a migrant kids shelter, a spokesperson said they were renewed earlier this year and described their migrant kid's shelter as “the only facility in the state to be licensed for this residential program.”
Why Catholic Charities was renewed and others appear to still be fighting for that renewal, is among the many questions no one seems to want to answer.
In the past, attorneys for the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, which runs the unaccompanied minor program, told the DeSantis administration these shelters don’t need a state license to operate since they’re federally funded to serve unaccompanied children. As for where things stand now, the feds aren’t saying.
In an email to us late Thursday, a spokesperson from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services stated they are closely monitoring the situation in Florida and examining potential legal action to ensure these shelters can continue caring for unaccompanied children.