The last time the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children was open in 2017, 60 children would arrive some nights on a charter bus. Other nights, there were 120 more.
They would be brought to the shelter’s north side for processing and medical clearance, and perhaps treated for lice they contracted on the journey from Central America through Mexico and into the United States. Each child would receive vaccinations, making some feel drowsy and sick in the days to come.
A few children would quickly be transferred to other facilities with stronger security, including children who were pregnant or suspected, based on their tattoos, of being in a gang. From the moment they arrived until the moment they left to live with family members or sponsors, typically about a month later, the children would see an array of case workers, doctors and therapists and receive medication, testing and counseling.
The shelter, which received little public attention between its opening in 2016 and initial closing in April 2017, has been thrust into the middle of a fierce debate over the Trump administration's family separation policy. Since reopening this past February, the compound has been the site of public protests — after it was revealed at least 70 children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border were kept there.
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A federal judge has ordered that this latter group of children, and others like them at facilities around the country, be reunited with their families.
Piecing together a picture of life inside the country's second-largest shelter for migrant children is difficult. Outside of a brief guided tour last month for reporters — who were not allowed to speak to the children — and a 90-second curated video, officials from the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the facility, and Comprehensive Health Services, the contractor that manages the site, have been stingy in releasing information.
But conversations with several former employees who worked at the shelter in 2016-17 — a case worker, supervisor, teacher and healthcare worker, three of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity — offer a glimpse into this largely secretive world. The shelter is both orderly, with children walking single file and living by strict schedules, and chaotic, as staff scramble to provide medical treatment and find new homes for thousands of children around the United States.
The former supervisor estimated that, during the shelter’s peak intake in the winter of 2016-17, about 500 children were arriving and 500 more were leaving every week.
“We were getting kids out of there extremely fast,” he said.
Health and Human Services spokesman Kenneth Wolfe said the number of unaccompanied minors at the shelter reached 1,750 the last time it was open. But multiple former employees said it was actually over 2,000. According to the former supervisor, there were 2,200 kids there in late 2016 and early 2017 during a "super crazy three months."
"Everyone knew how many kids were present," he said, noting that management provided regular updates at briefings.
The supervisor said large tents on the facility’s north side, which was used for intake, had the capacity to hold thousands more. By his rough count, there were 12 rooms that each held about 600 bunk beds. The south side, where most children stayed, was smaller with four to six kids per room and about 2,000 beds total.
“If properly staffed, it can hold about 8,000 children comfortably,” the former supervisor said of the shelter. “It never reached that capacity, but they were ready for it just in case.”
Gail Hart, a spokeswoman for Comprehensive Health Services, said all questions about the shelter should be directed to the Office of Refugee Resettlement within the Department of Health and Human Services. Health and Human Services officials did not respond to questions about the number of beds on the premises.
The supervisor estimated that, over the course of less than a year, over 10,000 children had stepped foot inside. But then, around March 2017, “kids stopped coming,” he said. On the first day of April, suddenly, the shelter shut down and hundreds of staff members were out of a job. It's not clear where the remaining children were sent.
The shelter at 960 Bougainville Blvd. currently houses about 1,200 children, Wolfe said, with no current plans to expand.
Staffers were under strict orders not to speak with the news media in 2016-17, employees said. That appears still to be the case. “I do know people who continue to work there,” the former supervisor said. “Most of them will refuse to speak with you.”
The supervisor was surprised to hear Health and Human Services had revealed the number of children inside. “I don’t know if policy has changed or not,” he said, “but no one is allowed to mention how many children are present at the shelter.”
When the facility closed in April 2017, staffers were asked to sign forms agreeing not to speak publicly about their experience, according to a former teacher, Lourdes Perez Ramirez. Ramirez was not present when the forms were signed, she said — she had gotten sick — but colleagues relayed the experience to her.
Adding to the level of secrecy is the fact that the facility sits on federal land next to the Homestead Air Force Base, and is one of two shelters for unaccompanied minors out of more than 100 operated by Health and Human Services nationally that is not subject to state regulations and annual state inspections, according to CBS News.
Most work at the facility is performed by private contractors. The former healthcare worker said he was blown away by the web of subcontractors operating there, to the point that he believed Comprehensive Health Services was being wasteful in its spending.
The healthcare worker said he never saw local or state police called to the facility. Ramirez was surprised one morning when she learned a child had escaped the night before but didn’t see a single police car.
“If someone has escaped, shouldn’t police be over there?” she said.
Comprehensive Health Services, based in Cape Canaveral, also contracts out the hiring of teachers — a decision that has drawn the concern of Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who said the shelter has not been transparent with the district about children who fall under its purview.
The district has provided teachers to two other shelters for unaccompanied minors in the county: Catholic Charities’ Msgr. Bryan Walsh Children’s Village, formerly known as Boys Town, and His House in Miami Gardens.
The children were given very few books, often below their grade level, Ramirez said, and were not allowed to take notebooks back to the boarding area. She described a sense of fear among those in upper management, worried that if the children had pencils in their rooms they might use them to hurt staff or peers.
Ramirez said the children were mostly eager to learn. She taught them English and explained the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. “They were in love with that,” she said. But ultimately, Ramirez said, “it was not a school."
Ramirez also described a flurry of medical activity that raised suspicion among some teachers, who were not privy to the children’s medical situations. Several of her 30-plus students would be pulled out of the classroom every day for treatment, although she was told not to ask why. They often were taken in groups first thing in the morning and could be gone for hours at a time.
“We might not see that boy all day after that,” Ramirez said.
The routine led Ramirez to wonder whether children might be improperly medicated, but other employees said there was nothing nefarious going on. The former supervisor said that, due to medical privacy laws, only essential case workers and medical staff were allowed to know why children were getting treatment. Teachers, he said, had “no use for that information.”
“[Children] are given medications based on their needs,” the supervisor said. “Many of them come in sick or get sick along the way.”
The former case manager described a sense of urgency in the process. “It was always with the intentions of reuniting them with their legal guardians,” she said. “The process is time-sensitive. Therefore, staff used as much day time as possible.”
Multiple former employees said children were not treated with antidepressants or drugs for attention deficit disorder, as was allegedly the case at one shelter in Texas. If a child was feeling down, the supervisor said, he or she would talk to a licensed counselor.
“These children have access to doctors, lawyers, psychologists, and at moment’s notice,” the former supervisor said. “They are treated very well based on my experience. This is not the same kind of shelter as the one in Texas."
Base pay for youth care workers was $16 per hour, according to the supervisor.
“This shelter brings Homestead up economically,” he said. “Many of these youth care workers used to have very low-income jobs.”
But other employees had a much less rosy view. Ramirez, the former teacher, said the children were often miserable.
“It’s basically like a prison,” she said. “You cannot enter certain doors, you cannot go through certain areas, you cannot talk to the children unless you’re the case manager, you cannot touch them, you cannot do anything.”
She recalled one child who cried for his mother each day.
“When a 13-year-old cries every day, obviously something is wrong,” she said.
The shelter has limited security: Guards are unarmed, and employees said violent incidents were rare. During a tour of the facility last month, CHS officials acknowledged that one child had tried to run away, but said he was found quickly. A staff member sits outside children’s bedrooms at night, the healthcare worker said, making sure they don’t escape.
Meanwhile, questions remain about the shelter’s hiring process and the behavior of its staff. Last November, a 35-year-old former youth care worker was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for sending nude photographs and lewd text messages to a 15-year-old immigrant boy she met at the facility.
More recently, a felony drug offender with a history of domestic violence charges told a surprised judge he was working with kids at the shelter.
Still, overall, three former employees felt the children were cared for relatively well under difficult circumstances.
“The facility was well-equipped and I never saw anything unusual,” said the former case manager. “As a matter of fact, the priority was very high and the demand was very high when it came to the care of the children, and making sure that we kept at a time-efficient reunification.”
Certainly, the Trump administration’s family separation policy has come with a new set of challenges for the staff charged with reuniting children and parents. But the Department of Health and Human Services has been reluctant to provide details of the process. Late last month, the agency would not confirm how many of the 70 separated children had been unable to reach their parents.
Sen. Bill Nelson said he learned that eight separated children’s parents had yet to be located; 60 parents had requested their children be placed with sponsors or relatives in the United States; and two had asked that their children be returned to their home country.
The former supervisor said that, while he understood people's frustration over the administration's approach, he believed protests of the shelter itself were misguided.
“This shelter existed before Trump was president,” he said. “And it houses people in need.”