Reports about the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children outside Miami tend to fall into two categories: The federal government likes to claim the place is a clean, happy temporary dorm for immigrant kids waiting to enter the United States. The kids themselves, however, consistently tell lawyers and advocates the place sucks, makes them depressed, and leaves some of them with lasting trauma.
A new report about conditions inside the camp lays bare that dichotomy once again. For the past few months, the nonprofit Disability Rights Florida has been visiting Homestead and monitoring the conditions inside. In a 17-page report issued today, the group said accounts from detention center officials in some cases greatly clashed with those of the young detainees. Kids, for example, reported having far less time to eat lunch than officials claimed. The children said they had no access to recreational activities or the kinds of therapy the government claimed they were being offered and, most worrying, in some cases were afraid to report abuse out of fear of retaliation.
"It is widely acknowledged that many of the immigrant children detained by the federal government at Homestead Shelter have experienced significant trauma and need appropriate mental health care," Peter Sleasman, director of investigations at Disability Rights Florida, said today in a media release. "Homestead, with a population of over 2000 children at the time of our visit, was not staffed or designed to meet the needs of these children."
Even though the government rapidly emptied the Homestead shelter during the height of hurricane season for safety reasons, the Miami Herald has reported that children are likely to be returned there as early as next month.
In a statement to New Times this afternoon, HHS spokespeople said that the government "has no current plans to resume operations at the Homestead temporary emergency influx facility" and otherwise is in the process of reviewing the claims in DRF's report. HHS did not, however, rule out the possibility that children may be sent back to the detention center in the fall.
"Historically during the fall months we can see an increase in referrals," HHS told New Times. "Our job is to be prepared. Having Homestead and Carrizo Springs Influx Care Facilities available when and if there is a need is a result of our aggressive bed management strategy that allows us to expand and contract capacity as needed. It always remains our preference to place minors in our permanent network of state-licensed beds and we are working on strategies to minimize the use of Emergency Influx Care Facilities in the future."
The new report meshes with previous statements from Homestead kids. In a long-form feature this past June, New Times detailed the conditions children described inside the camp: kids crying themselves to sleep, minors languishing in the detention center despite having sponsors willing and ready to pick them up, bathrooms covered in mildew, fans so loud in some rooms that kids had to sleep with blankets over their heads, and, in the worst cases, girls cutting themselves.
The Disability Rights Florida (DRF) report mentions similar allegations. A DRF investigator toured the compound in May, when 2,300 children were being held there. The nonprofit listed seven major issues at the compound, including that most children wind up getting stuck at the facility for months despite the fact that, legally, they are not supposed to be detained more than 20 days. Immigrant children reported being given instructions that contradicted statements officials have reported to the public and to aid workers: For example, the facility said kids are given 30-minute lunch breaks, but children uniformly told a DRF investigator they received only ten minutes to eat and often could not finish their meals in time.
In addition, kids reported to DRF that they felt confused and often uninformed about their own medical records. For mental health care, Homestead children are sent to Larkin Behavioral Health, a nearby provider, but kids reported they often were prescribed medications without being told what they were.
"Most of the children we spoke with who were taking psychotropic medications did not know what medications they were being prescribed, the purpose of the medication, or the symptoms the medication was intended to address," DRF's report states. "This was the case even for older children who otherwise appeared more than capable of understanding such matters."
Likewise, kids said they were given inconsistent information about internal mental health and therapy sessions. Camp operators told DRF that Homestead operators ran 50-minute group counseling sessions with a licensed therapist once a week. But the advocacy group found that the number of licensed clinicians at the facility appeared to be too low to treat the number of traumatized kids and that counseling sessions were not occurring as frequently as advertised.
"[The] children we interviewed who had received mental health services gave us conflicting reports on the frequency of the counseling services," the report states. "One child reported receiving no group therapy sessions."
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Most troubling, DRF said procedures for sexual and physical abuse reporting appear to be inadequate. The nonprofit says children are instructed to report claims of abuse to internal case managers rather than an outside agency — a policy the nonprofit says might scare kids away from coming forward with the truth. In fact, DRF says it isn't even clear if local police departments have jurisdiction to investigate serious claims on federal land.
"We also learned from media reports after our monitoring that there is serious doubt as to whether local law enforcement or DCF’s child protective services investigators have jurisdiction to investigate allegations of abuse or sexual assault at Homestead because it is a federal facility located on federal property," the report says. "Therefore, referrals to state and local law enforcement or child protective services may be ineffective. It is unacceptable that there should be any doubt as to which governmental entity is responsible for receiving reports of abuse or sexual assault and conducting timely and appropriate investigations into those reports."
Sleasman, the DRF investigator who visited Homestead, is now pushing for the federal government to keep kids out of the camp.
"Homestead is currently closed, and we strongly urge the government to not reopen it," he said today.