Miami-Dade County

After visiting kids at Homestead center, Miami-Dade leaders are “pleasantly surprised”

Miami-Dade County’s mayor and a few other local leaders got a rare glimpse inside the Homestead children’s detention center Tuesday and said though the situation remains troubling, they were pleasantly surprised by its cleanliness and by how well the kids appear to be treated.

The 1,300 or so teens who remain there, all between 13 and 17 years old, were sleeping in bunk beds with no more than eight to a room. All were getting plenty of exercise and schooling and they were getting three decent meals a day. The bathrooms, those who visited said, were spotless.

“I saw a pretty well-run facility and I got to talk to the kids at random,” said Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez. “They all spoke Spanish and they all looked at me straight in the eye and said the food was fine.”

The group that visited Tuesday — Gimenez, Deputy Mayor Maurice Kemp, Director of Emergency Management Frank Rollason and Police Director Juan Perez — were invited to tour the campus by the Federal Protection Services agency, which oversees safety at the South Miami-Dade shelter.

Gimenez said he left Tuesday’s tour off his public calendar because he didn’t want to turn it into a big media event.

The county leaders said they wanted to observe the center not only to make sure the children were being treated properly during their stay in Miami-Dade, but to see what services they may have to provide in the event of some type of catastrophe like a hurricane or fire. They said they spent about four hours inside the facility.

Perez said Miami-Dade police had been communicating with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the center, to assist with demonstrations and other events. The police director said his main concern is the safety of staff and the children. And he echoed the mayor on the conditions he observed inside the facility.

“Lots of youngsters crossed the border unaccompanied and it’s sad,” he said. “But the ones I spoke with were happy and of sound mind.”

Homestead, which houses undocumented children primarily from Central American countries, many of whom were separated from their parents while trying to make their way into the U.S. from the southern border, had become a lightning rod the past few months as news spread about mistreatment of undocumented immigrants at some holding facilities.

Children advocates visited the center with media in tow, standing on ladders and waving to kids behind the gates. Several Democratic candidates for president who were in town for the debates at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts chose to visit, also climbing a ladder to wave to the children.

Miami-Dade Police Department Director Juan Perez MATIAS J. OCNER

But unlike some of the facilities run by Customs and Border Protection that house adults and family units along the Mexican border, the children being detained in Homestead had not complained of lack of food, dirty bathroom conditions or of having to sleep in silver aluminum bags on cold floors while they were locked in cages.

In fact, as hurricane season kicked into gear, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services stopped adding new kids in Homestead and downsized its child population by more than half, to 1,300 from 2,700. The children who have left the center have either reunited with sponsors or been transferred to other shelters. In late May the Miami Herald reported that the center did not have a plan in place for the coming hurricane season.

Gimenez said he had the chance to speak with case workers in Homestead, many of whom showed him pictures and thank you notes left by children who had been transferred out. The children, Gimenez said were sleeping in bunk beds in the old Air Force barracks, no more than eight to a room. The girls and boys were separated, as were the 17-year-olds from the rest of the kids.

“As long as they’re residents of Miami-Dade County, we wanted to make sure the services and everything else was okay,” said the mayor.

Kemp, the deputy mayor who oversees police, jails and social services, said the visit left him reassured.

“We didn’t find anything to be concerned about,” he said.

Said Perez: “It’s tough to describe what to say because ultimately, it’s a kid who’s been separated from his parents due to entering the country unaccompanied. But under the circumstances I’m more than satisfied with what I saw.”

Miami Herald Staff Writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.