AP NEWS

Senator tours Florida teen detention camp he wants shut down

March 12, 2019
FILE - In this Feb.19, 2019 file photo, children line up to enter a tent at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Homestead, Fla. U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley said Monday, March 11, 2019 that he toured the Florida facility and found children are being held there for too long in a restrictive environment. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)

MIAMI (AP) — A Democratic senator from Oregon advocating against migrant youth detention camps says he toured a Florida facility and found children are being held there for too long in a restrictive environment.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley said that he talked to three boys who also confirmed reports that employees told teenagers they would not be reunited with family if they misbehaved.

“We should be having an expedited process to have kids placed with sponsors,” Merkley told The Associated Press. “The principle is you don’t keep kids locked up.”

Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Mark Weber said Wednesday that the release of children can be delayed “if a child presents with serious behavior incidents or impulsivity.”

“The behavior is evaluated and informs the release recommendations,” Weber said. He clarified the employees should not be discussing with the children the factors used to determine their release. “Staff will be retrained on this topic to ensure compliance.”

About 1,600 children in government custody are housed at the privately run camp in Homestead, Florida. The health agency prefers to refer to it as a residential shelter.

The senator says it is the largest and least regulated of the facilities where the government holds children who cross the Mexican border.

The agency says children spend 58 days on average there. When the news media visited in June, officials said the average stay was 25 days.

Merkley has introduced legislation to shut down unlicensed facilities.

The Florida Department of Children and Families has said in an emailed statement that the facility is federal and the state child welfare agency “does not have any jurisdiction or involvement with children placed there.”

In December, the government simultaneously announced the closure of an unlicensed detention camp in Tornillo, Texas, and the expansion of the Homestead facility from 1,350 to 2,350 beds.