MIAMI - A 14-year-old girl from Honduras arrived to the U.S. looking for safety, but instead she ran into a system that did not offer her the extensive screenings required in the U.S. foster care system, which is already overcrowded and rife with problems.
U.S. authorities trying to keep up with the tens of thousands of children who have been fleeing from violence in Central America since 2013 granted her step-father custody. He forced her to work at several cantinas in central Florida where there was prostitution and alcohol.
In another case, U.S. authorities gave a family friend custody of a girl. She was forced to cook, clean and care for a group of children in a Florida trailer park. The two migrant girls in Florida were among more than two dozen cases linked to sexual abuse, labor trafficking or severe abuse and neglect, according to an Associated Press investigation.
"This is clearly the tip of the iceberg," said Jacqueline Bhabha, research director at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University. "We would never release domestic children to private settings with as little scrutiny."
There could be many other children at risk in Florida. Without enough beds to accommodate the record number of arrivals, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services lowered its safety standards in the last three years to swiftly move some 89,000 minors out of government shelters and into sponsors ' homes. According to the Office of Refugee Settlement about 9,000 were released to sponsors in Florida.
"So many kids were piling up at the Border Patrol stations that the agency had to start emptying their shelter beds," said Jennifer Podkul, senior program officer at the nonprofit Women's Refugee Commission. "They sped up reunification procedures that they had in place for years."
After they were released to their relatives or sponsors, most of them rarely saw child welfare workers and others vanished. Last year, a social worker visited an apartment complex in Fort Meyers, where the government had sent more than a dozen children. It was empty, said Hilary Chester, associate director of anti-trafficking programs at U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, a federal contractor.
"We are concerned that it could have been a front to have those kids released so that traffickers could get them into the workforce," Chester said. "No one knows where the kids are."
Federal officials said they are strengthening procedures and recently signed a contract to open new shelters to keep up with the rising number of minors coming from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell warned Congress the agency needed an additional $400 million to be able to provide shelter and referral services to the minors. The request was denied.
"We think reforms are necessary and urgently required because there are kids right now who are coming in over the border," Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said. "This is a problem that has to be addressed."
Political instability and corruption linked to the cocaine trade continue to fuel violence in Central America. In Florida, a vast number of undocumented Central Americans find refuge in deep South Miami-Dade. They are linked to the traveling agricultural communities working in farms near Homestead and Florida City.
- A 14-year-old from Guatemala sent to live with a distant relative in Los Angeles, who deprived him of food
- A 17-year-old from Honduras sent to live with an aunt in Texas, who forced her to work in a restaurant at night and clean houses on weekends. She also often locked her in the home.
- A 17-year-old from Guatemala who was placed with a friend's brother in Alabama. He vowed to help him to go to school, but instead made him work in a restaurant for 12 hours a day to earn rent.
- A teenage girl from Honduras who was placed with a sponsor in New York City who was so physically abusive that she ran away and sought refuge in a shelter.
The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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