U.S. Rep. Frederica S. Wilson led a Congressional delegation to Dade Juvenile Residential Facility, better known as the Homestead detention center that included members whose areas of interest and expertise could assess whether the children’s educational, medical, mental health and other needs are being met.
The South Florida lawmaker has been concerned about how the girls being held are faring, particularly adolescent girls who are experiencing the physical and emotional changes and challenges of puberty. Seven disturbing reports of sexual abuse, the latest of which was revealed only because Health and Human Services erroneously submitted a report to the Florida Department of Children and Families.
“I came specifically looking for girls. Where are the girls?” Wilson asked. “I know what happens when people have access to desperate little adolescent girls who have no one watching for them.”
Wilson spent an additional two hours at Homestead to try to meet with the girls, but left vowing to return again and again until she is reassured about the care they are receiving.
In recent weeks, there have been reports of young children being denied access to basics such as food and showers and forced to live in squalor. Adults are not faring much better with some being detained in standing-room-only conditions in border facilities.
South Florida is home to the Homestead detention center, which is the largest child detention center for unaccompanied minors in the United States and managed by a for-profit company. Wilson said the teens being detained at Homestead appear as if they live in clean environment, but noted, appearances could be deceiving. She said they couldn't accurately gauge their mental health.
Wilson was joined by Rep. Donna Shalala, former U.S. Department of Health and Human Services secretary; Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security; civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis of Georgia; Connecticut Rep. Jahana Hayes, a former public school Teacher of the Year; Michigan Rep. Brenda Lawrence, who co-chairs the Democratic Women’s Caucus; Massachusetts Rep. Katharine Clark; and Rep. Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania.
More than one year has passed since President Donald Trump’s administration began implementing a zero-tolerance policy that has separated thousands of migrant children from their families. He hasn't to the ongoing cries of outrage from Congressional lawmakers and activist groups about the conditions in which the children are reportedly living.
“This administration has shown a blatant disregard for the mental and physical health of children in custody. They’re spending weeks, and even months, under detention conditions that are tantamount to living under house arrest and we are upset about it,” said Wilson, who has previously visited Homestead as well as visited Casa Padre and Casa Presidente in Brownsville, Texas, and the His House Children’s Home in Miami Gardens.
Thompson expressed concern about whether the children are receiving educational services and their lengths of stay.
“I don’t see the Miami-Dade school system educating the children in this facility. I don’t see children being tested to determine what classroom they need to go in. Children are staying here beyond the 20-day requirement of the court’s decision and more important, tax payers are paying $775 per day per child,” he said, pledging to right the wrongs he had seen.
Lewis echoed that sentiment.
“I will go back to Washington, D.C., within the next few days much more determined to hold on to something I've believed in for some time," Lewis said. "When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to say something; you have to do something."
Lawrence said that the inhumane way the children are being treated must be immediately addressed. The Michigan lawmaker said she was “appalled” to learn that the mealtimes are just 15 minutes.
“In prison, they get 30 minutes,” she said, also vowing to return to Congress with a mission to ensure the children, especially the girls, are treated with humanity.
All of the lawmakers agreed, Homestead should be closed. They are troubled by the long periods of stay and seemingly no effort to reunite the children with their families or other people who can care for them in real homes.
“What I saw there was a young girl turning 18 today and ICE was being approved to come and pick her up and transfer her in shackles to another facility,” said Hayes. “Seeking asylum is not a criminal act. Being a refugee is not a criminal act. I cannot, in this Congress or on my watch, support facilities like this.”
“These children can be processed and sent to foster care. They can be processed and sent to next of kin, aunts, grandmothers, people in the community, and that’s what we are fighting for today,” added Wilson.