For the second time in less than two years, a Sarasota shelter for migrant children is fighting the state for a new license.
The shelter, known as the Dream Center, hasn’t done anything wrong.
In fact, in documents filed with the state’s Division of Administrative Hearings last month, Lutheran Services of Florida, which operates the Dream Center, detailed how employees from the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) (https://www.myflfamilies.com/) described the faith-based non-profit as having a long history of doing things right.
“LSF has a proven history of successfully providing a broad spectrum of significant and effective services to vulnerable populations throughout Florida,” which includes “providing residential services to unaccompanied children,” the complaint states.
Still, after applying for its license renewal last year, DCF denied it.
DCF cited a new emergency rule it adopted last year. The rule requires the federal government to enter into a cooperative agreement with the state over immigration policies.
Without that agreement, DCF claims, the agency can’t relicense shelters in Florida that care for unaccompanied migrant kids as part of a long-standing federal program.
DCF created the emergency rule months after Governor Ron DeSantis first ordered the state agency to stop licensing shelters that care for unaccompanied migrant children. His executive order was part of his larger crackdown on illegal immigration DeSantis dubbed “Biden’s Border Crisis.”
“We want to our resources to be focused on Florida kids,” Governor DeSantis said back in December of 2021 when Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone questioned why he was bringing children into the immigration debate
In Lutheran’s formal challenge over their recent license denial, attorneys for the organization describe DCF’s emergency rule as “arbitrary & capricious.” Lutheran attorneys also describe how denying the shelter a state license could force its “closure” and “people losing their jobs.”
At one point, the complaint cites reporter Katie LaGrone’s exclusive coverage of the controversy, which began back in October of 2021. Recently, LaGrone discovered DCF, despite its own “emergency” rule, had granted Catholic Charities of Miami a new license as a shelter for unaccompanied children.
“We are really heartbroken that this has been a position that the Governor and the state of Florida continues to maintain,” said Miriam Abaya of First Focus on Children (https://firstfocus.org/). The DC-based organization is a bi-partisan child advocacy group and was among dozens of child and immigrant advocates who sent letters to the Governor pleading with him to stop bringing children into the immigration debate by going after shelters federally funded to care for migrant children.
In several back-and-forth letters, federal attorneys have informed the DeSantis administration that shelters for unaccompanied migrant children don’t need a state license to care for them or keep receiving the federal funds to do it.
Abaya thinks federal leaders should be more outspoken about its program for unaccompanied migrant children and the states, including Florida, that are making it difficult for providers to care for them.
In Florida, several providers have already shut down their programs for unaccompanied migrant children because of the state’s new policies.
“I think there absolutely is room and space to be more vocal about what they want to do for children, how they want the system of care for unaccompanied kids to look like how the system of care for unaccompanied kids is mandated by federal law, and how Florida is bucking that law,” Abaya said.
The federal government is looking into creating its own federal licensing program for UAC shelters that could shut out states from the process altogether.
Lutheran Services’ complaint against DCF is the second legal challenge filed over the controversy in just a few months.
Back in September, His House in Miami, the state’s largest shelter for unaccompanied children, filed its own complaint after it was also denied a license because of DCF’s emergency rule.
The state ended up settling. In settlement documents, DCF acknowledged the U.S. Supremacy Clause, which keeps states from prohibiting companies from doing work they are federally contracted to do.
Though Lutheran Services of Florida isn’t talking on camera about its challenge against DCF, spokesperson Terri Durdaller stated:
“As a faith-based organization who has been serving some of the most vulnerable children and families, including refugees and immigrants, for 40 years, our focus remains on our mission. We believe all God’s children should be treated equally with compassion and dignity.”
In 2021, after Lutheran Services of Florida sued DCF for not issuing them a new license following the Governor’s order, CEO Sam Sipes expressed concerns his group and the children they serve were being thrown into the middle of a political squabble.
“We don’t make decisions on who’s allowed to stay or go. Our mission is to provide healing and hope to children and families in need and in the name of Jesus Christ, that’s what we do,” he told Reporter LaGrone at the time.
And it’s what they hope to continue to do with the state’s blessing.
DCF did not respond to multiple requests for comment at the time of publishing.