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HHS OIG: Many Children Separated from Parents, Guardians Before Ms. L. v. Ice Court Order and Some Separations Continue

January 17, 2019

Washington, DC- Public attention has focused largely on children separated from their parents who are covered by a widely reported Federal court order. But, more children, over a longer period of time, have been separated from their parents or guardians and referred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) for care , according to an issue brief published today by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Office of Inspector General (OIG).

As of December 2018, HHS had identified 2,737 children who were separated from their parents and required to be reunified by a June 2018 court in the Ms. L v. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) litigation. However, this number does not represent the full scope of family separations. Thousands of children may have been separated during an influx that began in 2017, before the accounting required by the court. In addition, as of early November 2018, HHS has received at least 118 separated children since the court order.

The issue brief, Separated Children Placed in Office of Refugee Resettlement Care, provides information on the number and status of separated children who have entered the care of HHS through the Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) Program, which is administered by ORR, a program Office of the Administration for Children and Families within HHS. An unaccompanied child is a minor who has no lawful immigration status in the U.S. and does not have a parent or legal guardian in the country available to care for him or her. By law, ORR takes custody of these unaccompanied children until they are placed with sponsors in the United States or their immigration status is resolved.

"OIG has a longstanding commitment to protecting and improving programs that serve children," said Christi Grimm, OIG's Chief of Staff. "We believe findings from our work on children in the UAC program will help inform HHS, Congress, and other stakeholders who strive to make the program better and keep children safer."

Findings

Beginning in the summer of 2017, before the formal announcement of the zero-tolerance policy, ORR staff saw a steep increase in the number of children who had been separated from a parent or guardian by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and subsequently referred to ORR for care. On June 26, 2018, the court in Ms. L v. ICE directed the Federal government to stop separating parents and children at the border (except in limited circumstances) and to identify qualifying children in ORR care on that date and reunite them with their parents. In response to this order, in July 2018, ORR certified a list of 2,654 children that ORR believed to be separated from parents who met the Ms. L v ICE class definition. As a result of revisions made throughout the fall and winter of 2018, the Department ultimately identified 2,737 separated children in its care who were children of Ms. L class members and were eligible for reunification.

HHS has reunited most of the families on the certified list, pursuant to the court order; however, the lack of an existing, integrated data system to track separated families across HHS and DHS and the complexity of determining which children should be considered separated meant that the list of families entitled to reunification was still being revised as late as December 2018, more than 5 months after the order's effective date.

In addition, HHS officials estimate that ORR received and released thousands of separated children before the court order in Ms. L v. ICE. ORR was not legally required to identify or track separated children released before the court's order. Because of the limitation of its data systems, ORR was unable to provide a more precise estimate or specific information about these children's sponsor placements. Because they did not have parents covered by the June 26 order, these separated children were not included in the Ms. L v. ICE reunification process.

ORR continues to receive children separated from their parents by immigration officials. Between July 1 and November 7, 2018, ORR received at least 118 children who DHS identified as separated when referring the child to ORR care. However, DHS provided ORR with limited information about the reasons for these separations, which may impede ORR's ability to determine appropriate placements.

In its comments on our issue brief, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) officials described steps taken to strengthen ORR's ability to identify separated children, including modifying ORR's online case management system, calling the processes "effective and continuing to improve." OIG encourages continued efforts to improve communication, transparency, and accountability for the identification, care, and placement of separated children.

Background

In 2018, OIG announced that the agency would rapidly deploy multidisciplinary teams to conduct site visits at ORR-funded facilities nationwide to review the care and well-being of all children residing in these facilities, including the subset of children who were separated due to the zero-tolerance policy. As part of this work, OIG also reviewed HHS program data and interviewed HHS staff, officials, and senior leadership to understand how HHS identified and tracked separated children. In the coming year, OIG expects to issue multiple reports relating to the care and well-being of unaccompanied children residing in ORR-funded care providers.

Since responsibility for unaccompanied children was transferred to HHS by the Homeland Security Act of 2002, OIG has provided oversight of the UAC program. OIG is charged with overseeing programs and operations in HHS-including ORR-to combat fraud, waste, and abuse in those programs and to promote their efficiency and effectiveness. To accomplish this, OIG employs an array of oversight tools including audits, evaluations, and investigations.

OIG has completed work examining various aspects of the UAC program. For example, we audited grantee expenditures and assessed their internal controls for administering UAC program funds. We also examined whether ORR grantees met safety standards for the care and release of children in their custody. When OIG has identified possible criminal misconduct, we have investigated it or referred it to our Federal or local law enforcement partners as appropriate. All of these efforts have one unifying purpose-to promote the protection of children in the Department's care.

For more information about OIG's issue brief and other completed UAC work products, visit oig.hhs.gov/uac.