A 17-year-old boy living in a Safety Harbor shelter for unaccompanied migrant children died Wednesday after being transferred to Mease Countryside Hospital, according to Bill Pellan, director of investigations for the District 6 Medical Examiner Office.
Pellan said further details of the boy’s death could not be released due to the ongoing investigation. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office confirmed the active case and declined to release records.
The shelter, at 101 Main St. in downtown Safety Harbor, has been in operation by the Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services nonprofit since late 2020. It is funded by and houses children on behalf of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement.
The boy, a Honduran, arrived at the shelter on May 5 and was taken to the hospital after being found unconscious Wednesday, according to Reuters, which cited a notice sent to U.S. Congress members. The notice said he was pronounced dead after an hour of resuscitation attempts.
The death is complicated by an ongoing dispute between the federal government and Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration, which in December 2021 announced that Florida will no longer license shelters that house migrant children. The decision has resulted in shelters, including the one in Safety Harbor, being able to operate without a license or state oversight.
Sandra Braham, CEO of Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services, on Thursday declined to answer any questions about the boy’s death or the shelter program.
In a text message to the Tampa Bay Times, Braham said the nonprofit is not authorized to speak about the federal program but is “devastated by our loss.”
The shelter has 50 beds, according to a business tax receipt application filed by the nonprofit in August 2022. Safety Harbor City Manager Matt Spoor confirmed that the nonprofit failed to file a business tax record with the city when it opened more than a year and a half earlier but that the facility meets code and is a permitted use.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement places unaccompanied minors in the Safety Harbor facility who are coming from countries such as Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and others as they wait to be placed with sponsor families, according to Helen Rodriguez, who said she worked at the shelter from January to April 2021 as a coordinator. Rodriguez said children typically stayed for about 30 days.
Gulf Coast was awarded more than $5 million in federal funds for residential shelter programs this year, federal records show. The shelter on Main Street is housed in a three-story building formerly occupied by Safety Harbor Senior Living, an assisted living and memory care facility that closed in August 2020.
Florida became home to additional shelters for migrant children as a result of a policy shift by the Trump administration, which had faced widespread criticism for separating children from their parents at the border and housing them in caged areas. In response, the government contracted with faith-based organizations and nonprofits to house migrant children in small shelters of about 50 or 60 kids.
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The DeSantis administration’s decision to discontinue licensing the facilities sparked fears that nonprofits across the state would be forced to shutter their shelters.
Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary Shevaun Harris said in 2022 that the rule change was in response to the Biden administration’s decision to “encourage the mass smuggling of minors to the southern border without their parents.”
It was challenged in Florida administrative court last year by Lutheran Services Florida, which operates a shelter in Sarasota, and by His House Children’s Home, a nonprofit based in Miami. Both groups argued that the state cannot prevent federal contractors from operating.
In its petition, His House called DeSantis’ rule change “political propaganda” that was aimed at “bolstering his political bonafides so that he can run for President in 2024.”
The Florida Department of Children and Families resolved the cases in separate agreements allowing the two shelters to operate without a license. It’s unclear if other nonprofits operating shelters, including Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services, have sought similar agreements.
Shelters under state oversight, such as group foster homes, typically must pass inspections for the issuance and extension of licenses. That can include yearly fire and health inspections and visits from the Department of Children and Families officials.
In a statement to the Times, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said its Office of Refugee Resettlement conducts its own monitoring and evaluation of the shelters for migrant children that it funds in Florida “to ensure the safety and well-being of all children in our care.” Although the state is not licensing these shelters, the federal office said it still requires its facilities to meet licensing standards.
The refugee resettlement program is described as providing children in the shelters with access to health care, legal services, case managers and counselors, and translation services.
The office declined to provide details on the death of the boy from the Safety Harbor facility but said it is “reviewing all clinical details of this case, including all inpatient health care records” and is in touch with the family.
Most children’s shelters across the nation are regulated at the state or local government level. However, Department of Children and Families officials said the blame for the Florida facilities operating with no state oversight belongs with the federal government.
“We communicated the need to have an agreement with the federal government that would require enhanced oversight and accountability for the health and welfare of youth entering the country and being placed in these facilities,” said Mallory McManus, department deputy chief of staff. “The oversight responsibility of this unaccompanied alien children facility lies solely with the federal government.”
However, in its petition, His House argued that the state’s proposal for an enhanced agreement with the federal government was “an illusory statement” because the governor’s office made clear it “no longer wishes to be involved” in the federal resettlement program unless the immigration policies of the Trump administration were restored.
The lack of regulation of these shelters is a cause for concern, said Adriana Dinis, a St. Petersburg immigration attorney who previously represented unaccompanied minors.
“We can’t pick and choose which children we’re going to help and protect,” she said.