MIAMI -- A 12-year-old Bahamian girl was separated from her godmother at a South Florida airport after fleeing the destruction of Hurricane Dorian and was sent by U.S. Customs officials to a Miami Gardens shelter for abused or abandoned children.
Kaytora Paul, 12, had flown with her godmother from Nassau to West Palm Beach Sunday night after being evacuated from hurricane-ravaged Abaco. However, when the two landed in Florida, U.S. Customs and Border Protection transferred them over to Miami International Airport and ultimately separated the pair because the woman wasn't the child's biological parent, the girl's mother, Katty Paul, told the Miami Herald Tuesday.
Officials also refused to give the girl's biological aunt, who had come to pick her up at the airport, custody. The young evacuee is currently being housed at His House Children's Home in Miami Gardens, under the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
CBP and HHS did not immediately respond to emails from the Miami Herald on Tuesday. A His House employee told the Herald to contact the U.S. government. Federal sources say cases like Paul's are expected to rise as more Bahamians continue to seek refuge after the storm.
"I thought losing my house was devastating. Or having to relocate to a different island or country was devastating," Katty Paul said. "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 said the family of six -- her husband, daughter and three other children, ages 3, 10 and 19 -- barely survived Hurricane Dorian. Paul works two jobs as a restaurant server and her husband operates heavy machinery.
"We were in our house when the roof collapsed. The flood waters kept rising. We spent six days in our Dodge sleeping with the windshield broken, getting wet in the rain," she said. "To go through that harrowing experience with your children, and then for one to be taken away from you?"
Paul told the Herald her 12-year-old would ended up with her godmother after rescuers came for the family.
"But there wasn't enough space. 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," she said.
Getting back her child won't be easy. The mother, although having physically arrived in Miami on Tuesday, can't pick her up. Paul was told she had to go through the process of applying to be her daughter's sponsor with HHS. To make matters more challenging, Paul can only stay in the U.S. until Sept. 26 because she doesn't have a U.S. visa.
"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," she said. "You should hear her voice. She's out of it. Crying, depressed. She wants her family but we can't do anything."
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