A 12-year-old Bahamian girl was separated from family at a South Florida airport after fleeing the destruction of Hurricane Dorian and was sent by U.S. Customs officials to a Miami Gardens shelter for abused or abandoned children.
Kaytora Paul, 12 — accompanied by her godmother — had flown from Nassau to West Palm Beach Sunday night after being evacuated from the hurricane-ravaged Abaco island. However, when the two landed in Florida, U.S. Customs and Border Protection transferred them over to Miami International Airport and ultimately separated the pair because the woman wasn’t the child’s biological parent, the girl’s mother, Katty Paul, told the Miami Herald Tuesday.
Officials also refused to give the girl’s biological aunt, who had come to pick her up at the airport, custody. The young evacuee is currently being housed at His House Children’s Home in Miami Gardens, under the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. His House is a facility used by the U.S. government to house unaccompanied migrant children. The girl would be considered an “unaccompanied minor” because she wasn’t physically accompanied by her biological mother or father.
Typically, children under 13 are sent to His House as well as Boystown in Cutler Bay, another South Florida tender-age center. Any kids ages 13 to 17 have been sent to the Homestead detention center.
In a statement Wednesday, CBP confirmed the case to the Miami Herald, saying the girl arrived “with an adult that had no identifiable familial relationship.”
“CBP made multiple attempts to contact family members however was unsuccessful—resulting in the need to transfer the child to HHS custody. CBP exercises due diligence to guard against child exploitation and human smuggling during uncertainties created by natural disasters and emergencies,” a spokesperson said in an email. “When encountering minors, there are legal requirements that CBP must follow that are in place to ensure the safety of the child.”
HHS did not immediately respond to emails from the Miami Herald on Tuesday or Wednesday. A His House employee told the Herald to contact the U.S. government. Federal sources say cases like Paul’s are expected to rise as more Bahamians continue to seek refuge after the storm.
“I thought losing my house was devastating. Or having to relocate to a different island or country was devastating,” Katty Paul said. “But when I found out that they got her, my baby, I mean, there are no words. It was at that moment that I really lost everything.”
Paul said the family of six — her husband, daughter, and three other children ages 3, 10 and 19 — barely survived Hurricane Dorian. Paul works two jobs as a restaurant server and her husband operates heavy machinery.
“We were in our house when the roof collapsed. The floodwaters kept rising. We spent six days in our Dodge sleeping with the windshield broken, getting wet in the rain,” she said. “To go through that harrowing experience with your children, and then for one to be taken away from you?”
Paul told the Herald her 12-year-old ended up with her godmother after rescuers came for the family.
“But there wasn’t enough space. At that point you have to make a decision. I sent my 12-year-old with her godmother, while I stayed with our two youngest and my husband stayed with our adult son,” she said.
Getting her child back won’t be easy. The mother, although having arrived in Miami on Tuesday, can’t pick her up. Paul was told she had to go through the process of applying to be her daughter’s sponsor with HHS. In order to get custody of her daughter, Paul would have to collect documentation that would prove she’s her mother — like a birth certificate, government identification as well as proof of address. In the past, this process has taken anywhere from weeks to months.
To make matters more challenging, Paul says U.S. officials told her that she can only stay in the U.S. until Sept. 26.
Bahamian citizens coming to the U.S. after Dorian from storm-affected areas are allowed into the country for a limited time with a Bahamian passport and a police certificate proving a clean criminal record.
“I don’t even want to think about what that will look like — if I have to leave here before being able to claim my own daughter,” she said. “You should hear her voice. She’s out of it. Crying, depressed. She wants her family but we can’t do anything.”