A St. Augustine woman says the past three days marks the longest she's ever been separated from her four children.
They live in a cluster of tents off a dirt road in St. Johns County. Mother, Ericka Alderman, says it has been their home since October. The Department of Children and Family Services has been monitoring her children the majority of that time.
On February 16, First Coast News featured Alderman as part of a series highlighting homeless schoolchildren in St. Johns County.
DCF said in a statement that "unlike abuse, abandonment or neglect, homelessness alone is not an automatic qualifier for state intervention." DCF's general position is the reason Alderman said she's stunned her children were removed from her care on Tuesday.
"They told me they were taking them because I haven't done what I was supposed to do and because it was cold," said Alderman. "[My kids] were devastated and scared, and I couldn't do nothing."
After the story aired last month, DCF placed Alderman and her children in a hotel. After two weeks, she says she was told she needed to return to her tent.
"They told me I had to leave and that they didn't have the funding to provide me with anymore hotels," said Alderman. "...and, I mean, they came out of nowhere [and took my kids.]"
In a "shelter" hearing held Wednesday, DCF told a St. Johns County judge that Alderman's children needed more stable housing, especially with temperatures outside dropping.
Courtroom advocates told the judge the children were not suffering from neglect. On visits, Alderman's caseworker said she observed that the children were safe in their mother's care, and attending school regularly.
The removal is only temporary and another hearing will be held Friday.
"I don't want to be selfish and want them here in the cold," Alderman said tearfully, "But i don't want them with strangers they don't know either."
Initially she didn't want to leave St. Johns county where her children attend school, but now she says she'll move anywhere and will keep putting in applications to try to find permanent housing.