A 12-year-old Bahamian girl who evacuated to Florida after her family’s home was destroyed in the recent hurricane was separated from her adult companion by US officials and placed in a Miami shelter for unaccompanied immigrant children.
Kaytora Paul and her godmother fled Dorian’s destruction and flew to West Palm Beach on Monday, the Miami Herald first reported. When they arrived, they were separated by Customs and Border Protection officials because the godmother was not the child’s biological parent.
Kaytora was placed in the custody of the US Department of Health and Human Services and taken to a government-designated facility for unaccompanied immigrant children in Miami Gardens.
On Thursday, the Miami Herald reported the 12-year-old was reunited with her family after she was picked up by her mother and aunt at a shelter for unaccompanied migrant children.
In a statement Wednesday, CBP said that officials had separated the girl because she arrived in Florida “with an adult that had no identifiable familial relationship.”
CBP said its “multiple attempts to contact family members ... [were] unsuccessful — resulting in the need to transfer the child to Department of Health and Human Services custody.”
The agency added that such actions were taken to “guard against child exploitation and human smuggling during uncertainties created by natural disasters and emergencies.”
Officials also refused to grant custody to Kaytora’s biological aunt who came to pick her up at the airport, the Herald reported.
CBP officials did not respond Thursday to BuzzFeed News requests for comment.
Several Bahamians who have lost their homes in the hurricane and are trying to seek refuge in the US are having a difficult time navigating changing US immigration rules.
The Trump administration itself has acknowledged the confusion in dealing with thousands of incoming evacuees fleeing the devastation in the Bahamas. It has yet to determine how long they will be allowed to remain in the US.
“I thought losing my house was devastating,” Kaytora’s mother, Katty Paul, told the Miami Herald on Tuesday. “Or having to relocate to a different island or country was devastating. 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,” she said.
BuzzFeed News was unable to reach Paul for comment.
His House Children’s Home, where Kaytora was reportedly placed, is a faith-based social services agency that primarily cares for “abandoned, abused and drug exposed children in South Florida,” according to its website.
The center is also used by the US government to house unaccompanied immigrant children.
The website says it provides the unaccompanied immigrant children in its care “with a safe and nurturing family environment while expediting their case and corresponding documents for their timely reunification or release.”
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, His House said it “cannot confirm or deny the child’s placement on campus.”
“We are confident that the agency involved will be working closely with ORR [Office of Refugee Resettlement] to expeditiously reunite the child with a viable sponsor,” Liz Anon, His House’s general counsel, said in the statement.
The HHS’s Administration for Children and Families told BuzzFeed News that it did not identify individual unaccompanied children and declined to comment on the specific case.
The agency said Wednesday that it was required by law to care for unaccompanied immigrant children who are referred by other federal agencies.
“Once in our care we work to put them in immediate contact with parents or family members so they may be united with a suitable sponsor as soon as possible,” the HHS statement said.
Katty Paul said that her house in the Abaco Islands was destroyed in the hurricane, forcing her family of six, including her husband and four children, to spend nearly a week in their car while getting wet in the rain. Her three other children are ages 3, 10, and 19.
“We were in our house when the roof collapsed,” Paul told the Herald. “The floodwaters kept rising. We spent six days in our Dodge sleeping with the windshield broken, getting wet in the rain. To go through that harrowing experience with your children, and then for one to be taken away from you?”
When rescuers came for her family, Paul said there wasn’t enough space for all of them.
“At that point you have to make a decision,” she said. “I sent my 12-year-old with her godmother, while I stayed with our two youngest and my husband stayed with our adult son.”
Paul, who arrived in Miami on Tuesday, told the Herald that she was unable to pick up her child from the shelter as she had to apply to HHS to be Kaytora’s sponsor and provide documentation to prove she is her mother.
While it is unclear how long this process will take, Paul said that US officials told her she was only allowed to stay in the US until Sept. 26. It is unclear if Kaytora has been reunited with her family as of Wednesday.
“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,” Paul said.
She said her daughter was crying and was depressed.
“She wants her family but we can’t do anything,” Paul said.