Originally published by The NY Time
A top official with the Department of Health and Human Services is expected to tell members of Congress on Thursday that the agency lost track of nearly 1,500 migrant children the agency placed with sponsors in the United States, according to prepared testimony obtained by The New York Times.
The official, Steven Wagner, acting assistant secretary of the agency’s Administration for Children and Families, is expected to disclose during testimony to a Senate Homeland Security subcommittee that the agency learned of the missing children after placing calls to the people who took responsibility for them when they were released from government custody.
The children were taken into government care after they showed up alone at the Southwest border. Most of the children are from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala — and were fleeing drug cartels, gang violence and domestic abuse, government data show.
From last October to the end of the year, the officials at the agency’s refugee office tried to reach 7,635 children and their sponsors, according to the prepared testimony.
From these calls, officials learned that 6,075 children remained with their sponsors. Twenty-eight had run away, five had been removed from the United States and 52 had relocated to live with a nonsponsor.
But officials at the agency were unable to determine with certainty the whereabouts of 1,475 children, Mr. Wagner says in the prepared testimony.
The new details came as Congress examines safeguards put in place by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security to make sure that children who show up alone at the border are turned over to relatives, and not human traffickers.
Two years ago the subcommittee released a report detailing how officials at the Health and Human Services Department placed eight children with human traffickers who forced the minors to work on an egg farm in Marion, Ohio.
That report found that department officials had failed to establish procedures to protect the unaccompanied minors, such as conducting sufficient background checks on potential sponsors and following up with sponsors to ensure that the children were safe. As a result, the children were turned over to individuals who contracted them out to the egg farm.
To prevent similar incidents, the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Health and Human Services signed a memorandum of understanding in 2016, and agreed to establish procedures within one year for dealing with unaccompanied migrant children.
More than a year after the new guidelines were due, the two agencies have not completed them, according to a person familiar with the development of the document. And the agencies have not yet provided the subcommittee with a timeline of when the guidelines would be completed, the person said.
Children who show up at the border by themselves usually are apprehended by Border Patrol agents or turn themselves in to customs officers at the Department of Homeland Security. Once they are processed, they are turned over to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement. The refugee office runs more than 100 shelters around the country where they house children and provide care until they can be turned over to a sponsor while awaiting their immigration hearings.
The sponsors are usually a parent or family member already residing in the United States. The sponsors are supposed to undergo a detailed background check, including making sure they have not been convicted of crimes.
After the child has been placed with a sponsor, workers at the Department of Health and Human Services follow up with calls to make sure that the minor continues to live with the person, is enrolled in a school and is aware of their immigration court dates.
The agency said it was not legally responsible for children after they have been released from its refugee office.
But Mr. Wagner said officials are re-examining their interpretation of existing laws to make sure that migrant children aren’t turned over to smugglers or human traffickers.