WASHINGTON—The U.S. government placed tens of thousands of migrant children in unscreened homes without even writing down the phone numbers or addresses of the adults in charge, a congressional investigation revealed. As the government eased safety precautions to deal with an overwhelming number of unaccompanied minors, thousands of children were trafficked as slaves, abused, or simply disappeared.
Unaccompanied alien children (UACs) who enter the United States are under the custody and care of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), according to a law passed in 2008. It is the department’s responsibility to move children out of over-occupied government shelters and into sponsors’ homes.
Last year, Ohio courts charged six defendants with enslaving at least six migrant children from Guatemala on egg farms in Marion County. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, led a Senate investigation and found systemic lapses in the care for migrant children by HHS officials. The investigation found thousands of children fell into the hands of sex traffickers or sexual predators due to a lack of proper background checks and lax procedures.
“It is intolerable that human trafficking—modern-day slavery—could occur in our own backyard,” Portman said at a Senate hearing today to address HHS failures. “Even more alarming is that a U.S. government agency was responsible.”
More than 90,000 migrant children have crossed American borders since 2013, and the numbers are not slowing down. Without enough space to house migrant children, HHS officials have expedited the process of placing children in homes of American sponsors.
The investigation found that HHS officials did not maintain consistent guidelines for placing children. Procedure dictates that family members of children receive precedence. But when family members were not found, HHS workers rushed the placement process. Officials stopped consistently fingerprinting adults seeking to claim the children. And in April 2014, the agency stopped requiring original birth certificates to prove sponsor identities.
Those omissions have led to thousands of children disappearing once placed with sponsors. HHS officials do not have phone numbers and often don’t know the addresses of sponsor homes.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., teamed up with Portman to conduct the six-month investigation on the surge of unaccompanied migrant children and the shortcomings of HHS.
“I am disgusted and angry,” McCaskill said. “We only reviewed a fraction of these cases and we found so many objectionable activities.”
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., questioned two HHS officials about how they kept track of the thousands of children they are legally responsible for. He asked how many of the 90,000-plus children the HHS could contact if it needed to.
“We have no idea how many we could contact today,” said Mark Greenberg, the HHS assistant secretary of the Administration for Children and Families.
Greenberg and his colleague Robert Carey, the director of the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement, struggled with the questions and evidence at the hearing. Carey did not come to the hearing with a prepared statement and repeatedly redirected or did not answer senators’ questions.
When pressed for an explanation of the crisis, Carey said he was “reluctant to speculate if something could have been done better.”
At one point during the hearing, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., became so frustrated by the HHS witnesses he got up and left. “This is the definition of non-cooperative,” he said. “[Greenberg and Carey’s] lack of knowledge of the facts is insulting.”
Greenberg added that his office had worked hard to adapt to the rapid increase in the size of the UAC program: “But this is an ongoing process while we review all of our policies.”
Since the surge of migrant children, around 4 percent of sponsors received home visits from HHS officials to ensure proper care despite the fact that since 2013 the HHS has more than $350 million in unspent funds for the UAC program, according to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Effective Jan. 25., the HHS strengthened its criminal background checks for UAC sponsors in response to the alleged abuse of children under its care.
“Up until three days ago, it was the policy of the HHS that it was okay if other adults in the house had been convicted of sex crimes for children,” McCaskill said. “This is what really drives me crazy.”
Senators at the hearing called the new background checks a step in the right direction. But Portman made it clear more drastic overhauls need to be made.
“I continue to be troubled by the fact that HHS told us that it is literally unable to figure out how many children it has placed with convicted felons,” he said. “This must change.”