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Shelter where migrant teen died operated largely without problems, records show

2022 licensing records show 32-bedroom shelter was “appropriate and equipped”
Posted at 9:05 AM, May 17, 2023

SAFETY HARBOR, Fla. — When Barbara Shaw walked up to the Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services (JFCS) shelter in downtown Safety Harbor Monday morning, she came to pay her respects to a teenager she didn’t know and never met.

“I think he should be recognized. It’s been a few days and I see no one else recognizing him,” the Safety Harbor resident said as she placed a small bouquet of flowers along with a simple sign on a piece of cardboard that read “Angel Eduardo Maradiasa Espinoza.”

Espinoza is a 17-year-old from Honduras who died a few days after he arrived at the Gulf Coast JFCS shelter for unaccompanied minors.

Espinoza, who had just been placed at the shelter a few days prior to his death, was found unresponsive in a shelter bed Wednesday morning. He was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead, according to authorities.

“It’s a loss of life and a young life in our town. We need to be aware of that,” Shaw said, describing why she wanted to leave something outside the shelter in his honor.

While the investigation surrounding the teen’s death remains ongoing, the Gulf Coast JFCS is one of a handful of shelters in Florida that are federally funded to provide temporary care for kids who cross the border into the United States without a parent or guardian.

The program operates out of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) within the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

Last year, as part of an ongoing political feud between the Biden and DeSantis administrations, Florida stopped licensing most of these shelters, halting any state oversight.

The move originated with Governor Ron DeSantis in 2021 as part of a larger executive order he signed to crack down on illegal immigration. At the time, the Governor dubbed the order “Biden’s Border Crisis.”

But licensing documents we obtained as part of our two-year-long investigation into Florida’s crackdown on unaccompanied minors and the shelters that house them show the shelter where Espinoza was placed has a recent history that’s largely problem-free.

In state licensing documents from 2022, which is the last year the 32-bedroom shelter was licensed by the state, inspectors from the Department of Children & Families (DCF) described the shelter as “appropriate and equipped to care for up to 50 children.” At the time, the shelter had, “no reported complaints or pending lawsuits,” the records show.

That year, according to state documents, the shelter had an annual budget of just under $5 million dollars- all of it federal money since the nation’s unaccompanied children’s shelter program is completely federally funded.

Records also showed a child’s average stay at the shelter was just over 30 days before leaving and then being reunited with a sponsor or relative in the United States.

“This facility seems like a safe clean place,” said Republican U.S. Senator Rick Scott, who toured the facility and used the moment to inject some politics while demanding answers into the teen’s death. “I don’t think anyone can understand why Biden has opened our borders but that’s happened. If these kids are going to be here, I want them to be safe."

Senator Rick Scott tours shelter where unaccompanied migrant teen lived before his death

According to Associated Press, the teen’s mom them her son had epilepsy but showed no signs of being seriously ill before he left for the United States.”

According to the Pinellas County Medical Examiner’s office, autopsy results could take up to another few weeks before being released to the public.