Legality questioned at public hearing on new DCF rule
During an audio-only public hearing via Zoom, Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) staff heard the public’s opposition time and time again.
The public comment referred to a proposed new rule that, if approved, directs the DCF to permanently cease issuing state licenses to federally funded shelters that house unaccompanied migrant children for the federal government until that the federal government agrees to share more details on who it sends here.
The DCF maintains that the rule is intended to put Florida children first and stop what is wrong. Ron DeSantis’ administration has called Biden’s border crisis.
DeSantis and DCF have also criticized the federal government’s program for unaccompanied minors as participating in “human trafficking” when it sends children to shelters across the country, including Florida.
But some members of the public drilled into the state’s main child welfare agency on Thursday for answers and an explanation.
“I have yet to hear officials articulate a rational and legally constitutional reason why they believe unaccompanied children, who are here and supported by federal funds, are somehow abducting children American citizens in Florida,” asked Luz Lopez of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
DCF responded that the measure was how the agency prioritized children in Florida.
During the two-hour hearing, more than a dozen shelter providers, immigrant rights advocates and religious leaders questioned the state’s legal basis for the unprecedented rule.
Not a single member of the public spoke out in favor of the proposed rule. Some called it too vague, others called it irrational, and several members of the public criticized the law for being ill-defined.
At one point, Paul Chavez of the Southern Poverty Law Center asked if the DCF could clarify how the agency defines “Florida children.”
A DCF staff member replied, “a legitimate citizen.”
But when Chavez asked if that also meant asylum seekers or people born in Florida or just US citizens, the DCF staffer said “maybe we should clarify that in writing after the meeting.”
The public hearing follows months of growing tensions over the governor’s latest efforts to crack down on illegal immigration to the state.
In the fall, investigative reporter Katie LaGrone and her photographer, Matthew Apthorp, were the first reporters to find out how an executive order signed by DeSantis ordered the DCF not to renew the licenses of federally funded shelters housing unaccompanied children in the state.
The measure forced the Sarasota Dream Center to relocate nearly 60 unaccompanied children in its care because the DCF refused to respond to the center’s license renewal application.
The Dream Center’s parent company, Lutheran Services, sued the state for DCF to meet its license renewal request.
A day before the DCF told a judge why it was blocking the nonprofit, the DCF suddenly renewed its license.
The DCF has since passed a temporary rule denying these shelters a license until the federal government agrees to a cooperative agreement with the state detailing more information about the children it sends here as part of a long-standing program with its Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).
To date, no such agreement has been concluded.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services did not explain why it would not enter into agreements with Florida to share more details about the children it sends here.
A spokesperson explained only that the federal government is legally obligated to care for unaccompanied children and that the agency continues to explore its legal options.
“I would hate to work for DCF in the role of trying to champion this proposition,” said Pastor Joel Tooley from Melbourne, who also commented at Thursday’s public hearing.
Tooley, who works as an immigrant advocate with the Evangelical Christian Table, helped lead the charge behind a letter sent in January to DCF and DeSantis.
The letter, signed by 200 religious leaders from across the state, urged the governor and the DCF not to bring children and shelters, many of them faith-based, into what appeared to be one more immigration debate. increasingly intense between the DeSantis administration and Biden. administration.
Tooley thinks targeting nonprofit shelters that are contracted by the federal government to support unaccompanied minors also infringes on their religious freedoms, as many of these shelters are faith-based and care for children regardless of their origin, is part of their religious missions. .
“It feels like there is a target behind us, forcing us to choose. Are we willing to give up caring for vulnerable children who are entrusted to our communities because of political posturing? There’s no decision there, there’s no middle ground there,” Tooley said. “Our hope is that the department decides they don’t have the bandwidth to continue with this. “
DCF is accepting written public comments on its proposed new rule for these shelters until the close of business on March 2.
Earlier this week, the general counsel for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sent a response to DeSantis’ administration.
He said that despite the DCF’s rule not to renew the license of shelters and foster families caring for unaccompanied children under the federal government’s program, the state could not take action, beyond suspension or revocation, against these shelters if they continued to serve these children without a state license. .
According to the letter, authorities are asking for a response by March 4.