Katty Paul thought she lost everything when her home was decimated by Hurricane Dorian on Abaco island in the Bahamas earlier this month.
But that was before she learned that her 12-year-old daughter Kaytora Paul would be interned at a detention center for migrant children in Florida indefinitely.
“I thought losing my house was devastating. Or having to relocate to a different island or country was devastating,” Paul told the Miami Herald on Tuesday. “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 and her husband had to make a snap decision when rescuers came to their Abaco island home after the worst of the storm had passed, she told the Herald. They barely survived the Category 5 hurricane, which parked over the Bahamas for days and caused widespread devastation, killing at least 50 people.
After surviving while the roof collapsed and floodwaters rose, the family of six — Paul, her husband, Kaytora and three siblings aged 3, 10 and 19 — were rescued after six days spent sleeping in their Dodge, soaking wet because the windshield was broken, she told the Herald.
Rescuers could only fit so many people, so Paul sent Kaytora off with her godmother so she could stay with the two youngest children and her husband could remain with their 19-year-old son, she said.
According to Newsweek, Kaytora and her godmother flew from Nassau to West Palm Beach, where they were transferred to Miami International Airport. Customs and Border Patrol took her away from her godmother because the two were not biologically related. Then they refused to let Kaytora’s biological aunt pick her up even though she had come to the airport to collect her niece, the Herald said.
Now Paul is in Florida to pick up her child, but has been told she faces weeks of bureaucratic hurdles that could last longer than the amount of time she is permitted to remain in the U.S. — just through Sept. 26, she said she was told.
Meanwhile, a depressed and crying Kaytora languishes in U.S. Health and Human Services custody at His House Children’s Home in Miami Gardens, a facility the U.S. government uses to house unaccompanied or abused migrant children, the Herald said.
HHS, citing privacy concerns, would not give information about the girl’s condition or how long she may have to stay there.
“In order to protect the privacy and security of the unaccompanied alien children (UAC) referred to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), HHS does not identify individual UAC and will not comment on specific cases,” the department told the Daily News in an emailed statement. “By law HHS is required to provide care for UAC who are referred by another federal agency. 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. This is work we’ve done successfully since 2003 as a result of the competent, hardworking team dedicated to the safety and welfare of each child.”
Customs and Border Patrol said Wednesday that the agency was legally required to take Kaytora because she arrived “with an adult that had no identifiable familial relationship,” a spokesperson told the Daily News via email. “CBP made multiple attempts to contact family members, however was unsuccessful, resulting in the need to transfer the child to Department of Health and Human Services custody. This established CBP protocol is meant to protect vulnerable children from exploitation and human smuggling and is especially important during uncertainties created by natural disasters and emergencies. CBP has been in contact with the child’s mother and is working through HHS to verify legitimate caretakers and reunite them.”
The Herald report noted that Paul must apply for sponsorship of her own daughter, a process that could take weeks or even months.
“Our hearts go out to the people of the Bahamas and this young girl and her family,” CBP said. “U.S. Customs and Border Protection continues to support humanitarian operations working alongside a network of federal and international partners to process evacuees as expeditiously as possible.”
The Pauls are by no means the only family to be affected by border snafus and communication problems. It has been nearly impossible to contact people still on the island since the hurricane hit.
“No way to call them,” 25-year-old Yassmin Francis told the South Florida Sun Sentinel on Sunday. “All you can do is post on Facebook and hope they respond.”
Meanwhile, advocates said a child separated from her family is anything but safe.
“This little girl came to the U.S. fleeing Hurricane Dorian with her godmother at her parents’ direction only to be classified as an ‘unaccompanied minor’ and ripped away from her loved ones,” said the advocacy group Families Belong Together, a coalition of 250 organizations working to end migrant family separations. “Now, her family has to start the long process of becoming the child’s sponsor while they face deportation at the end of the month. We demand her immediate release.”