Originally published by Politico
Health and Human Services officials refused Thursday to meet with Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), saying the House Ethics Committee chair must first apologize for stating publicly earlier this week that HHS staff sexually abused migrant children in agency custody.
"By deliberately or negligently mischaracterizing the data during a televised hearing, you impugned the integrity of hundreds of federal civil servants," Jonathan Hayes, the HHS refugee director, wrote Deutch on Thursday, in a letter obtained by POLITICO.HHS has been seeking an apology for two days.
Deutch said he stands by his remarks, arguing that he sufficiently clarified that he was referencing contractors as well as staff. Deutch added that he will keep pushing HHS for a meeting on the sexual abuse data.
"Our job is to conduct oversight," Deutch told POLITICO. "I've never seen a response like this, that simply refuses to come talk to members of Congress ... I think they'd be interested in discussing [this] because people are outraged."
The rare standoff between a member of Congress and a federal agency arises from accusations that Deutch leveled during a House Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday on the Trump administration's family separation policy. In an exchange that went viral on social media, Deutch pointed to data that he said showed that thousands of migrant children suffered sexual abuse in HHS custody over a four-year period, including hundreds of assaults by HHS staff.
"This works out, on average, to one sexual assault by HHS staff on an unaccompanied minor per week," Deutch claimed Tuesday. The Florida Democrat further suggested that HHS deliberately placed migrant children in environments where they knew they'd be abused by agency staff.
The children were placed in shelters that were overseen by HHS contractors, not agency staff — a point that Deutch acknowledged after a witness disputed him, but that Deutch said did not change the thrust of his claim.
"That statement is false," Jonathan White, a career civil servant, shot back at Deutch. "You are speaking of allegations of sexual abuse against members of my team."
"I saw thousands of cases of sexual abuse, if not by HHS staff, then by the people that HHS staff oversees," Deutch countered, referencing data that HHS shared with his office. "I will make that clarification, it doesn't make what happened any less horrific."
HHS received 4,556 allegations of sexual abuse over the most recent four-year period, and the agency said the "significant majority" were for "inappropriate sexual behaviors," like verbal harassment, between children in custody. HHS has said that there were 178 allegations of serious sexual abuse by adult contractors over that period, which involved roughly 0.1 percent of all children placed in HHS custody over that period.
"These allegations were all fully investigated and remedial action was taken as appropriate," Hayes wrote to Deutch on Thursday.
Hayes added the agency won't meet with Deutch until he apologizes to staff and publicly corrects the record.
"On behalf of these dedicated employees of HHS assigned to the [refugee children] program, we request that you apologize to these career civil servants for your untoward and unfounded comments," Hayes wrote to Deutch. "Acknowledging that you were in the wrong is the moral, decent and right thing to do."
Deutch said he won't apologize and argued that HHS is seeking to obscure his investigation. "What I find so shocking and so disconcerting is the seeming acceptance of any number of staff on unaccompanied minor cases of sexual assault," he told POLITICO. "The tolerance for those horrific acts should be zero."