In a Florida home, two bedrooms remain fully furnished with sheets made and handmade art hanging on the walls. But the children the rooms were designed for are gone with no explanation on when or if any more children will return.
“These are kids you’re dealing with and all these kids deserve a chance in life,” said the foster father who lives there.
He asked us not to reveal his identity because he’s concerned the state’s child welfare agency will punish him for speaking out by denying his license renewal to continue caring for unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the U.S.
For 7 years, he and his wife have cared for approximately 250 unaccompanied children who arrived in the states through the federal government’s Office of Refugee and Resettlement (ORR) Unaccompanied Children’s program.
The program was created in 2002 to temporarily care for unaccompanied children who cross the border into the U.S. under the federally funded program, unaccompanied children are cared for by an ORR funded shelter or provider until they can be united with a relative or sponsor as they navigate the nation’s immigration process.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services which runs ORR, last year, the average length of stay with an ORR provider in the U.S. was 33 days. In Florida, there are just over 11,000 unaccompanied minors currently being cared for by an ORR assisted provider, second only to Texas.
For months, the foster father we spoke with said he and his wife have been trying to get their state license renewed so they can continue fostering unaccompanied children. The couple has been fostering unaccompanied kids in Florida for about a year and a half. Prior to Florida, they provided shelter to undocumented kids while they lived in New York.
Florida requires any shelter or home caring for children to be approved and licensed by Florida’s Department of Children and Families (DCF). But the state agency has yet to tell them if they have or haven’t been renewed, despite submitting all the necessary paperwork to the local agency they work with well before their current license expired. By the end of September, their annual license had expired and without an active license, the family had to say goodbye to the teenage brother and sister they had been caring for at the time for weeks.
When asked what it was like to suddenly say goodbye to the kids, the father responded, “heartbreaking, heartbreaking. I just cried,” he said while getting emotional.
Earlier this week, we were first to reveal how an ORR-funded shelter in Sarasota, the Dream Center, also had to find new shelters for nearly 60 unaccompanied children they were housing because the state wouldn’t renew its license before it, too, had expired. Half of the children in the center’s care are younger than 13-years-old explained Sam Sipes, CEO of Lutheran Services which oversees the center.
“It was incredibly emotional for the kids and the staff,” Sipes said. “For most of the children, it was the first place they ever felt safe, very sad."
Sipes isn’t speculating on why DCF appears to be ignoring them but he said it’s the first time they’ve dealt with anything like this from DCF. His organization recently filed a lawsuit against DCF in court, asking a judge to clarify if DCF’s “no response” to their licensing renewal application means they can’t continue caring for unaccompanied kids. In addition, the nonprofit is asking the courts to require DCF to provide an answer on whether it will or won’t renew its license within the next month.
Despite repeated attempts, DCF is also not answering our questions over why it’s not responding to licensing applications from providers caring for unaccompanied children. In an email, DCF spokesperson Laura Waltlhall only stated they “do not comment on pending litigation.”
In a lengthy statement, the Governor’s spokesperson, Christina Pushaw, cited the Biden Administration and its lack of transparency in sharing with state leaders who, when and where it’s sending undocumented people in Florida.
Despite repeated attempts, the Governor said the Biden Administration continues to ignore their requests for even basic information about individuals sent here. As a result, the Governor is pushing back.
In an executive order issued back in September, Governor DeSantis ordered state agencies to stop supporting federal efforts to bring undocumented immigrants into the state. He also broadly directs DCF not to renew the licenses of anyone caring for unaccompanied children that don’t demonstrate an “evidence of need.” Pushaw acknowledged DCF was still “working to establish” what that really means.
Back in the home of the foster parents we spoke with, paintings made by some of the unaccompanied children they’ve cared for in the past, hang on the bedroom walls. The foster parents keep pictures and videos of the children they’ve housed on their phones as they pray that politics doesn’t stop the mission they believe they were meant to carry out.
“These are kids you’re dealing with. They deserve a chance in life. When you dedicate everything you have to these kids and give all your heart it hurts, it hurts,” the father said.