CLEARWATER — Some of the children who have fled to the United States for their safety or to live with family members already here will soon find refuge in Pinellas County.
The federal Office of Refugee Resettlement has awarded a $2.5 million contract to Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services to establish a shelter for up to 50 children, between 10 and 17 years old, who crossed into the United States without their parents.
The center could open as soon as December or by early next year, said Elke Cumming, Gulf Coast’s vice president of programs and administration. The nonprofit group is still searching for a location.
Typically, child refugees crossing into the United States come from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico. Often, they fled their homelands to escape economic hardship, gang violence, human trafficking. Some have relatives they are trying to reach. They are classified as unaccompanied alien children.
“We’re working with vulnerable children who may have experienced trauma,” Cumming said. “Each one is provided services on a case-by-case basis.”
Most of the children will stay only until they can be connected with a relative in the United States or be sponsored by a family, which could take just a few days, said Lydia Holt, a supervisory public affairs specialist with the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
But children who have no readily identifiable family will end up staying longer. Across Florida, only 15 children are housed in Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters, Holt said.
Gulf Coast already runs an adult refugee program and has experience caring for children in foster care, Cumming said.
“We have a lot of vulnerable populations, which makes us feel comfortable that we have the support systems for these individuals,” she said.
Health and Human Services has given Gulf Coast a first-phase payment of $542,000 to secure a location and begin licensing through the Florida Department of Children and Families.
It plans to hire up to 40 staffers so it can meet the required adult-to-child ratio 24 hours a day.
More than 52,000 unaccompanied alien children were referred to the office of Refugee Settlement in the first half of 2019, according to Health and Human Services.
Their care has become the subject of controversy in the past two years.
In 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice adopted a zero-tolerance policy toward adults illegally crossing into the United States, including those seeking asylum. That included referring for prosecution any adults found crossing the border.
Any accompanying children were sent to Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters throughout the country, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit that advocates for human rights and racial justice issues.
Entering the United States illegally is a misdemeanor for a first-time offender. Prior to the crackdown, families mostly stayed together while their immigration cases went through the courts.
About 2,000 children in U.S. custody were separated from their parents between April and May of 2018 when the new policy began, Health and Human Services said. Human rights groups blasted the move, saying it would traumatize the children.
The quality of care in some shelters also was criticized. More than 2,000 children were moved out of a temporary for-profit shelter in Homestead, Fla., in 2019 after reports of sexual abuse and a report by Amnesty International that the shelter violated the children’s human rights.
The report called for children to be placed in licensed, small-sized shelters and released to families willing to sponsor them for a visa.
Gulf Coast is not the only nonprofit to win a contract from the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Lutheran Services Florida won a contract worth $8.4 million over three years to set up a shelter for up to 60 children ages 13 to 17 in Southwest Florida. The average stay is expected to be about 30 days.
The federal grant will pay for the program, including counseling, primary healthcare and schooling, said Terri Durdaller, Lutheran vice president of communications. The children are not eligible to be enrolled in public school nor to receive any other public benefits, including Medicaid.
“When they arrive, they already have a family sponsor identified through the federal government,” she said. “It’s up to the courts to decide next steps for the teenagers.”