A 12-year-old Bahamian girl was separated from her family this week while fleeing the destruction of Hurricane Dorian. She has since been placed in a South Florida children’s shelter, and now her mother is struggling to get her back.
According to the Miami Herald, Kaytora Paul was separated from her godmother by U.S. Customs and Border Protections (CBP) officials after arriving at Miami International Airport on Sunday night. The pair had flown into West Palm Beach, Florida from Nassau after being evacuated from the storm-ravaged Abaco Islands, the newspaper reported.
The two were later split because the woman wasn’t Paul’s biological parent.
Katty Paul, the girl’s mother, told the outlet that officials had also refused to hand Kaytora over to her biological aunt, who came to retrieve her from the airport. The young girl is now being housed at His House Children’s Home in a Miami shelter run by a local religious group — which also doubles as a U.S. government facility for migrant unaccompanied minors.
“I thought losing my house was devastating,” Katty Paul said. “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.”
The frustrated mother explained how her family of six barely survived Dorian, which barreled into the Bahamas as a Category 5 storm, killing an estimated 45 people and leaving thousands of others displaced. Paul said her 12-year-old wound up with her godmother after rescuers came to the family’s aid.
“But there wasn’t enough space,” she explained. “At that point you have to make a decision. 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 Monday, said she’s since started the process of retrieving her daughter from the shelter as a sponsor via the Dept. of Health and Human Services. Several documents proving she’s Kaytora’s mom, including a birth certificate and government-issued ID, are needed for Paul to regain custody of her daughter. However, that process could take up to several weeks or even months.
What’s worse, Paul only has until Sept. 26 to get her daughter before she’s required to return to the Bahamas. As reported by the Herald, Bahamian nationals who fled to the U.S. after Dorian are only allowed in the country for a limited amount of time.
“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 told the newspaper. “You should hear her voice. She’s out of it. Crying, depressed. She wants her family but we can’t do anything.”
CBP spokesman Roderick Kise provided Atlanta Black Star with the following statement on the situation, which read in part:
”Our hearts go out to the people of the Bahamas and this young girl and her family. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) continues to support humanitarian operations working alongside a network of federal and international partners to process evacuees as expeditiously as possible.”
The agency spokesman said CBP “made multiple attempts” to contact the girl’s parents after realizing she wasn’t in the care of a blood relative. When they weren’t able to, the child was taken into HHS 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,” Kise added. “CBP has been in contact with the child’s mother and is working through HHS to verify legitimate caretakers and reunite them.”