A bipartisan Senate investigation released Wednesday concluded the Department of Health and Human Services failed to adequately account for the well-being of unaccompanied migrant children once they leave government custody.
The lawmakers who conducted the investigation, Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Tom Carper (D-Del.), are urging the government to take responsibility for ensuring the safety and health of the minors even after they are turned over to an adult sponsor.
Portman and Carper, the chairman and ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on investigations, are holding a hearing about the issue on Thursday.
“These federal agencies must do more to care for unaccompanied minors and ensure they aren’t trafficked or abused,” Portman said. “This report details some small progress but also a glaring need for these agencies to take more responsibility for ensuring these children are safe and appear at their immigration court proceedings.”
Children crossing the border without an adult are housed in HHS shelters until they can be placed with a sponsor, typically a family member. HHS, which did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the new report, has repeatedly said that the agency is no longer responsible for children once they are released from its supervision — though they do check in with the sponsors by phone.
Portman has wanted to change this for years, and has been a leading voice on the issue since 2015 revelations that eight migrant children in Ohio had been released to human traffickers.
But the report says the situation is even more urgent now, due to the Trump administration’s now-ended policy of separating families at the border. While the policy was in place, children separated from their parents were turned over to HHS as their parents awaited trial in a detention center, and given the same unaccompanied minor status as those who cross the border alone.
That has contributed to a massive backlog in an already overburdened system, the report found.
HHS calls sponsors to check on children 30 days after they are released from custody, a practice that only began after the Senate subcommittee’s initial investigation on this subject almost three years ago. HHS learned from these calls that it was unable to determine the whereabouts of 1,475 children that left its care from October to December 2017. Of the 7,635 calls they made, they discovered that 28 kids had run away, five were removed from the United States and 52 were living with another person who was not the official sponsor, the report says.
The report alleges that HHS did nothing to try to locate the children after that.
The ongoing legal debate over Trump’s family separations threw a spotlight on the broader problem. When a federal judge ruled in June that the government had to reunite separated children with their parents quickly, that work took precedence over all else. The subcommittee staff sought updated data from 2018 about the children’s whereabouts. But the report said HHS told them it “can either work to reunite families or update data — but not both.”
The report also provides new statistics on the track record of unaccompanied minors showing up for their scheduled court hearings. Sponsors sign an agreement upon taking the child from HHS that they will ensure their attendance at the hearing, but as the report stresses there’s no one in the federal government who enforces that.
There are currently 80,226 pending court cases for these unaccompanied minor children from 2014 through June 30. Out of only 9,621 completed cases in that time period, more than half of the children did not show. When a child does not appear for a hearing, the judge can order their removal from the country.
“We have a moral responsibility to ensure that these migrant children fleeing their homes and extreme violence are safely and responsibly guided through the immigration process,” said Carper. “It is my hope that, finally, the administration officials coming before this subcommittee are prepared to discuss concrete steps being taken to better protect children living in our country.”
The senators are also calling for better coordination between HHS and the Department of Homeland Security. In April 2018, the two agencies signed an agreement that HHS would notify Immigration and Customs Enforcement when a child leaves a shelter and moves in with a sponsor.
But with the Trump White House’s hard line on immigration, the report notes concern that would-be sponsors who are undocumented may fear coming forward to claim a child for fear their information could then be used by ICE for enforcement.