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American Academy of Pediatrics calls on Gov. DeSantis to reverse policy aimed at unaccompanied kids

Governor’s order directs DCF not to renew licenses of shelters that house migrant kids
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Posted at 10:32 AM, Nov 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-01 11:11:56-05

Weeks after Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone was first to report how the state is inexplicably not renewing the state licenses of shelters and foster homes providing temporary care to unaccompanied migrant children, members of the American Academy of Pediatrics are calling on Governor DeSantis to revoke the executive order, they say, is behind this sudden new crackdown on kids.

“Our Governor has children himself. I just can’t imagine how this decision could be made knowing kids can’t speak for themselves, they need to be protected, “ said Miami pediatrician Dr. Lisa Gwynn.

Gwynn leads the Florida Chapter for the American Academy of Pediatrics. For years, she’s worked with a mobile clinic in Miami that provides care to unaccompanied kids who cross the border and are reunited with family members or sponsors as part of the federal government’s federal refugee resettlement 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.

Gwynn and her colleagues had heard about the September executive order signed by Governor DeSantis that directs Florida’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) not to renew the licenses of shelters or providers who care for unaccompanied children. But she and advocates in the industry were waiting to see how the order would play out. The executive order also directed all state agencies not to support any federal programs “transporting aliens apprehended at the Southwest border” who do not have lawful status under U.S. immigration laws.

According to DeSantis, the crackdown was an effort to address Biden’s “border crisis” and a lack of transparency from the feds in disclosing who, when and where they are resettling immigrants in Florida. For months, DeSantis said his administration had been seeking basic details of refugees being resettled in the state including names, destinations, criminal histories and COVID status but, he said, the feds have been ignoring their requests.

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Texas, Florida and Arizona are the top three states for immigrant resettlement, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

“They are farming out people all across communities in the U.S. including here in Florida and they don’t tell us what they’re doing,” DeSantis said during the September press conference when he announced the order. “We’re entitled to know given that we bear the cost of most of this."

Shelters caring for unaccompanied minors are fully funded by the federal government’s Office of Refugee Resettlement Program (ORR). Still, just a few months after the Governor signed his order, Florida shelters are beginning to feel its impact.

A few weeks ago, the Dream Center in Sarasota was forced to relocate the nearly 60 unaccompanied kids in its care. Half of the children were 13 and under according to the center’s CEO, Sam Sipes of Lutheran Services of Tampa. The center wasn’t renewed by DCF before its old license expired, said Sipes. Without a state license, the center can’t take care of kids.

Sipes said he never received an explanation from DCF on why he wasn’t renewed. In fact, to this day, he hasn’t heard if they will be renewed or not renewed.

“I’ve never experienced this before so I don’t really understand,” he told LaGrone a few weeks ago adding this particular shelter had opened in 2019 after a request by the Trump administration.

As a result of DCF’s apparent silent treatment, Lutheran Services is taking the state agency to court asking a Judge to clarify if it can legally care for children if DCF hasn’t provided them an answer on whether they will be renewed or not. In court documents filed in Hillsborough County, a DCF field inspector recommended the center be renewed after conducting a review as part of the renewal process.

Despite repeated requests to DCF, the agency is not commenting on the pending litigation or explaining why it’s not renewing the licenses of providers who care for unaccompanied kids.

In a recent interview, a Florida foster parent also revealed to us how he and his wife had heard nothing from DCF about their own state license renewal despite submitting all the paperwork and having nearly seven years of experience caring for unaccompanied kids through the federal program. As a result, the teen siblings they were caring for had to be removed from their Florida home recently.

Despite the children being removed from the Dream Center, a spokesperson with the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Administration for Children and Families said in an email the Center continues to operate as a shelter for unaccompanied children, but added any questions about state licensing should be directed to the appropriate state agency.

A Lutheran Services spokesperson confirmed the group recently received an amendment to their federal contract that waives the group’s need for a state license to operate. However, Lutheran Services is waiting for its litigation case to work its way through the court process. An emergency hearing has yet to be set as of the publishing of this article.

U.S. Congresswoman Lois Frankel of Palm Beach County believes DeSantis is using children and anti-immigration policies to gain political points with his base. In a statement, Frankel said “closing shelters is contrary to the values of our country. Unfortunately, the federal government has limited authority to intervene with the Governor’s inhumane actions.”

Frankel stands with advocates pushing for the Governor to reverse his policy. His policy provides exceptions to the non-renewal of state licenses if DCF can determine the resettlement of unaccompanied children constitutes “evidence of need.” Though, DCF has yet to publicly explain and define what that really means.

“A child doesn’t have parents or a place to go, if that isn’t evidence of need I don’t know what is,” said Dr. Gwynn said. “We’re all very confused about it.”

There are more than a dozen shelters in Florida that work with the feds to temporarily care for unaccompanied children as part of the federal ORR program. The American Academy of Pediatrics fears which shelter’s state license is up for renewal next and how many more children could find themselves being uprooted if Florida shuts down to them.

“They’re already up against so much and now we’re going to have our leadership strip them of their ability to have a safe place to be able to begin their lives in this country it’s just inexcusable,” said Gwynn.

As of the publishing of this article, the Governor’s office has not responded to our request for comment about calls to reverse his order.