Sex abuse claims revealed at Homestead shelter, where staff was not vetted for child abuse

The now-shuttered Homestead detention center for migrant children in Miami-Dade had four child sex-abuse claims that resulted in the firing of one employee and the resignation of two others, according to newly released documents.

The information about the claims of sex abuse, which took place in the 18 months between January 2017 and July 2018, is in a 17-page report sent to U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell’s office in mid-May, a year after she had filed an inquiry with the federal Administration for Children and Families about the center.

It offers a glimpse of how employees caring for migrant kids at Homestead were not vetted for prior child abuse records and how allegations were reported and handled.

In the report by ACF, the federal agency that oversees the detention and care of migrant minors, officials acknowledged that the facility did not conduct child-abuse and child-neglect background checks for employees hired to care for the immigrant teens at Homestead — a protocol that’s mandated in the state of Florida for anybody working with children.

The government’s reasoning for “waiving” the requirements of searching Florida’s database that confirms if a person is responsible for causing abuse or neglect to a child was that both ACF and Caliburn, the private company contracted to operate the detention center, were “unable to run child abuse and neglect checks on Homestead employees due to restrictions in the applicable Florida statutes and regulations.”

Though the government and Caliburn do conduct criminal background checks during the hiring process, it’s still unclear what Florida statutes and regulations restricted Homestead from conducting the abuse checks, which would bring to light allegations or investigations that often don’t make it into the criminal justice system.

Asked for clarification, ACF spokesperson Lydia Holt declined to comment, calling the inquiry “irrelevant” because the center is not currently open and hasn’t been for about a year. Caliburn did not respond to emails requesting more information.

The Homestead facility — which was abruptly shut down in August 2019 after the Miami Herald reported that the center didn’t have a hurricane plan in place — supervised as many as 1,200 kids at a time, making it the nation’s largest center for unaccompanied migrant children. The federal government defines unaccompanied migrant children as minors who enter the U.S. without a biological mother or father.

Inside the Homestead shelter for unaccompanied minors.
Inside the Homestead shelter for unaccompanied minors.

Mucarsel-Powell described the answers to her 50 questions as “evasive and incomplete, yet still manage to present an environment with allegations of staff-on-child sexual abuse and where staff members are not vetted for prior child abuse records.”

“It’s a loophole for child abuse,” Mucarsel-Powell said Wednesday. “They made a conscious decision to not conduct abuse background checks on employees. This matters, whether it’s open or closed. Every single day it matters. Not just here in Florida, but across America, where kids are still in detention facilities today. “

According to the report, “One allegation of sexual abuse resulted in a staff member’s termination. In that incident, a youth discharged from Homestead ICF reported having romantic feelings for a Homestead staff member and kept in contact with them through social media. The staff member traveled to the state where the youth was living after being released from [our] care. Although local [Child Protective Services] chose not to investigate, the staff member was fired,” the agency wrote.

It continued: “Of the other three allegations that occurred at Homestead in this time period, two staff members resigned and the other staff member was never identified in the allegation report.” The report offered no details about the staffers who resigned.


Last year, ACF officials told the Herald that they had the right not to comply with local and state regulations because the detention center sits on federal land and because it’s considered a federal “emergency influx center.”

On Wednesday, DaMonica Smith, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Children & Families, which would normally license group child placement facilities like Homestead, said that “DCF has no jurisdiction over this federal facility because it sits on federal land. Therefore DCF does not license the shelter. If DCF had jurisdiction to license the facility, all staff would be required to complete abuse checks as outlined in state statute” 39.202.

Smith added that if the migrant shelter were to sit on land that wasn’t owned by the federal government, it would be required to meet the licensing standards as a child-placing agency, which includes vetting employees for prior child abuse or neglect histories.

According to the ACF report, the four allegations of staff-on-child sexual abuse at the Homestead center were reported to the Department of Justice and DCF, and three of the four allegations were also reported to Miami-Dade Police.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement, ACF’s program that presides over the care of migrant children under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “is not an investigative entity,” the report said, noting that “the investigative entities that received reports for those four allegations determined they would not investigate in three of the four incidents and did not find the allegations to be substantiated in the fourth incident.”

Homestead shelter for unaccompanied minors.
Homestead shelter for unaccompanied minors.

But DCF data obtained by the Herald shows that no reports were filed with the state agency between January 2017 and July 2018. Miami-Dade Police did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

ACF has told the Herald that “ORR reviews every report of sexual abuse submitted by care providers.” In the ACF report, the agency said that Caliburn “reports allegations of sexual abuse to ORR, child protective services, the state licensing agency, HHS’ Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Department of Justice’s FBI.”

But that part about state law is only partly true, according to DCF, which has repeatedly told the Herald the agency isn’t allowed to investigate any allegations or enter the property.

Last year, Miami-Dade Police told the Herald that “if by chance Miami-Dade police get called to the center on a call of sex abuse, they are turned away by security.”

“Usually if we get a call for sex assault or something it’s because a staffer didn’t know the protocol,” a police spokesman said. “If we end up there we immediately get turned away.”

It’s unclear what state licensing agency Caliburn would report to if they aren’t licensed by the state.

Citing what it calls a slew of human-rights violations, Amnesty International, a global human-rights organization, published a 41-page report last July calling on the facilities to shut down after touring the Homestead center.

“Because of its designation as a ‘temporary influx’ care facility and its location on federal land, Homestead is permitted to operate without state licensing and to provide lower standards of care than is required of state-licensed, permanent ORR shelters,” the Amnesty report says. “This temporary influx designation enables Homestead to evade U.S. legal requirements for unaccompanied children that apply to permanent ORR shelters.”

The detention center in Homestead has been shut down since August 2019.
The detention center in Homestead has been shut down since August 2019.

Homestead first opened as an emergency influx facility in 2016 under former president Barack Obama as the number of incoming migrants at the border first soared.

The detention center shut down and reopened in March 2018 with the same emergency designation before closing again in August 2019.

The countless protests and media coverage of the Homestead facility — which technically is located in unincorporated Miami-Dade, not the City of Homestead — led Homestead officials to reach out to Mucarsel-Powell and her staff about possibly changing the facility’s name.

“Including Homestead in the name of the detention center gives the false impression that it is located within the City of Homestead and that the city has control over the facility, which is simply not the case,” said City of Homestead spokesman Zackery Good.

That’s when Mucarsel-Powell took the request to D.C. and succeeded in getting the name changed. Its new name: the Biscayne Influx Care Facility, which sits a few blocks away from Biscayne Drive.

“It was a scar on our community,” she said. “So many people were outraged because it gave the wrong perception of who we are. We always suspected that the children were being exposed to unsafe conditions at the facility, and now we know what we feared, which is why I’m calling on its permanent shutdown.”

Though the center currently remains closed on “warm status,” federal officials can reopen it at any time. Sources at the Department of Homeland Security with knowledge of the facility’s operations told the Herald that “only time will tell. Conversations are actively happening.”

Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Fl, called not vetting detention center staff for prior child abuse records “a loophole for child abuse.”
Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Fl, called not vetting detention center staff for prior child abuse records “a loophole for child abuse.”