During a recent roundtable in Tampa on first responders and mental health, we asked Florida Governor Ron DeSantis about migrant children and his recent order aimed at keeping them out of Florida.
“I want our resources focused on needs for Florida kids and the needs we have in our communities,” DeSantis said. “There are people coming from other countries, they shouldn’t be allowed into the country."
DeSantis’ response comes weeks after Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone exclusively discovered Florida’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) has stopped renewing the annual licenses of shelters that care for unaccompanied children who cross the border and are temporarily cared for by the government before they’re reunited with family here.
The shelters are 100% funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as part of its Office of Refugee Resettlement program. There are more than a dozen of these shelters across Florida with upwards of 700 beds available for unaccompanied children as part of the federal program that has been in existence here for decades.
An unknown number of children in Florida are also housed with foster families as part of the program who are also not being renewed, LaGrone learned. Neither the feds nor DCF would answer any questions about these license non-renewals and their impact on children and these shelters.
Last month, the Dream Center in Sarasota had to relocate the nearly 60 unaccompanied migrant children in its care because the state wouldn’t renew its annual license before it expired. DCF never explained to center leaders why. To date, the center is still getting silent treatment from DCF.
- More children are being uprooted, forced out of shelters and homes in Florida
- Unaccompanied children forced to move out of federally funded Florida shelter
- American Academy of Pediatrics calls on Gov. DeSantis to reverse policy aimed at unaccompanied kids
Sam Sipes heads Lutheran Services of Tampa which runs the Dream Center where about 100 employees are still showing up to work to care for kids who are no longer there. Sipes told LaGrone several weeks ago how they were forced to relocate the children to either federally funded shelters in Florida whose licenses had not yet expired or to shelters out of the state altogether.
“This place was for many of those children, most of those children the first place they ever felt safe. So yeah, it’s sad,” Sipes told LaGrone. “These 50 plus children were traumatized again because they had to move in a hurry because we couldn’t get clarity about our license status."
Lutheran Services opened the Dream Center shelter in 2019 after a request from the Trump Administration in response to the ongoing border crisis. The Dream Center, like other federally funded shelters that provide care to unaccompanied children, provides safe places for these children as they seek asylum in the U.S. Most of these children already have relatives or sponsors waiting to take custody of them within a few weeks after they arrive at these shelters.
The lack of answers from DCF forced Lutheran Services to take DCF to court about what Sipes described as something he’d never dealt with before. In the complaint filed in Hillsborough County Court, Lutheran Services accuses DCF of failing to issue a license renewal by the date the initial licensure would have been renewed. An emergency hearing is scheduled for this Friday.
The sudden non-renewals come after an anti-immigration executive order DeSantis signed back in September in response to what he dubbed “Biden’s border crisis.” It directs all Florida state agencies to stop supporting federal programs that transport to the state, “aliens apprehended at the Southwest border” who do not have lawful status here.
What’s happening in Florida, appears to be similar to what took place in Texas over the summer. Texas Governor Greg Abbot took a similar measure when he issued a disaster declaration that directed his state agency to deny or discontinue licenses for shelters that care for migrant children. However, before the declaration took effect, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission issued an emergency rule that allows the shelters to continue to operate without a state license. In Florida, no such rule currently exists.
Children who enter the U.S. unaccompanied and cared for by this program are typically sent by their parents or other family members in search of a better, free life in the U.S. Many of these children deal with brutal elements and incredible risks just trying to make it over the border.
At the same roundtable where LaGrone pressed the Governor for answers, DCF Secretary Shevaun Harris also refused to answer questions about the order and her agency’s apparent silent treatment towards providers seeking to renew their licenses. Other Florida shelters that are up for their own state license renewals are concerned they too, will have to relocate children if DCF doesn’t renew their licenses.
The situation has prompted lawmakers including Florida Representative Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando) and U.S. Congresswoman Lois Frankel (D-Palm Beach County) to speak out against what DeSantis is doing.
“Children should not be political pawns,” Eskamani said. “The fact that all of a sudden these non-profits doing contractual work is questioned, it’s clearly the Governor playing politics and it’s not good policy. It’s not safe for these children or these organizations who now have to scramble to find a safe place for these kids to go."
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which spoke out about the situation in Texas is also calling on DeSantis to reverse the order taking aim at kids.
“Our Governor has children himself. I just can’t imagine how this decision could be made knowing kids can’t speak for themselves,” said AAP Florida Chapter President Dr. Lisa Gwynn.
For years, Gwynn has worked with a mobile clinic in Miami that provides care to unaccompanied kids who cross the border as part of this program.
“They’re innocent. They’re excited to be reunited with family, go to school and live in safe environments, doesn’t everyone deserve that,” asked Gwynn.
The order includes an exception if DCF determines “the resettlement of unaccompanied children in Florida from outside of the state constitutes an evidence of need” under Florida law.
However, neither the Governor’s office nor DCF has yet to clarify what that really means. In an email several weeks ago, a spokesperson from the Governor’s office stated, “it’s still being established by DCF.”
Still, the Governor isn’t backing down.
“We want those resources focused on Florida kids and American kids,” he said. “We don’t want to be the place where those kids are being put in the back of the line because Biden is airlifting kids from the southern border."
But when Reporter Katie LaGrone told him the shelters are federally funded DeSantis responded, “I’ve answered your questions, thanks.”