TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Weeks after we were first to reveal how the Dream Center in Sarasota was forced to relocate nearly 60 unaccompanied migrant kids in its care because the state wouldn’t renew its license in time, and one week after we pressed the Governor on how his new anti- immigration policies caused this chaos; the Dream Center was suddenly granted a new license Thursday, according to a Lutheran Services Florida spokesperson. Lutheran Services operates the shelter.
The must-have state license was provided just one day before Florida’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) was scheduled to explain to a judge why it had been stonewalling the non-profit for months.
While our calls, texts, and emails to DCF on Friday went unanswered, just as they have been for weeks since we started reporting DCF’s silent treatment towards the child care provider; Terri Durdaller with Lutheran Services Florida provided the following statement:
“We are thankful this issue has come a to resolution. With our license now in hand, we plan to resume operations and continue to support vulnerable children,” she said. However, Durdaller didn’t know when the center would be accepting unaccompanied kids again.
But how long that mission will be able to continue in Florida, or how, remains riddled with questions for the shelter and others like it in Florida.
The Dream Center is one of more than a dozen shelters in Florida that that temporarily house unaccompanied migrant children after they’ve made it over the border, but before they’re reunited with family or sponsors here. The program is federally funded and operated out of the Office of Refugee Resettlement within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
But these shelters are also being targeted by Governor DeSantis as part of what he describes as “Biden’s Border Crisis,” which has included secret nighttime flights moving migrants, including children, into Florida without giving state leaders notice and basic details on who’s coming in.
“We don’t know who any of these folks are,” said DeSantis during a press conference on Friday where he announced a series of legislative reforms he’s proposing to further crackdown on the state’s illegal immigration crisis.
Back in September, DeSantis ordered DCF to stop renewing the licenses of these shelters unless DCF could determine they constituted an “evidence of need.” At the time, neither the Governor nor DCF had any definition of what “evidence of need” meant.
On Friday, as the Governor announced his new legislative proposals against illegal immigration, DCF also issued a new emergency rule offering additional detail on what the agency’s licensing policies would be towards shelters that house unaccompanied kids in the state. In the rule, DCF also determined it did not find these shelters constituted an “evidence of need.” It remains unclear how that was determined. Again, DCF hasn’t responded to our many requests over the past three weeks on this story.
According to the new rule, shelters housing unaccompanied children can’t get licensed or be granted a license renewal unless the feds agree to provide the state notice before they move unaccompanied kids to Florida. Shelters would also not be able to get a license to care for more kids beyond the population the shelter is currently licensed for. However, the rule states child care providers whose license expire within the next 45 days will not be subject to these new rules.
“In the short time, programs will likely get their licenses renewed, but in the long term, we’ll just have to see,” said Lisette Burton with the Association of Children’s Residential and Community Services (ACRC). The group is a membership organization that represents all kinds of child care providers including several shelters in Florida that house unaccompanied kids.
“I understand there are all sorts of policy disputes regarding what’s happening at the border and how kids get here but I don’t think the place to put pressure for changes to immigration is on the backs of really vulnerable children and on the backs of these mission driven, community based organizations who are serving those children and serving them well,” she said.
“Cartels are taking over, there’s human smuggling. It’s just a bad situation,” said DeSantis. “For us to be, as a country, basically facilitating that, that is really really bad policy,” he said.