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Operational Challenges Within ORR and the ORR Emergency Intake Site at Fort Bliss Hindered Case Management for Children

WHY WE DID THIS STUDY

In 2021, the United States saw a substantial increase in the number of unaccompanied children who arrived at the southern border and were referred to the care of the Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS's) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). The number of such children increased from 1,929 children in October 2020 to 20,339 children in April 2021. At the same time, ORR's capacity to care for children was diminished due to COVID-19-related staffing shortages and the loss of bed space due to physical distancing protocols and other public health mitigation strategies. To accommodate these children, ORR-a program office of HHS's Administration for Children and Families (ACF) that operates the Unaccompanied Children (UC) Program-opened 14 temporary emergency intake sites (EISs), including the ORR EIS at Fort Bliss, Texas.

Members of Congress, child welfare advocates, and staff at ORR facilities raised concerns about inadequate case management at the ORR EIS at Fort Bliss and its adverse effect on children's well-being and their safe and timely release to sponsors. (Sponsors are parents, guardians, or relatives or other individuals designated by an unaccompanied child's parents to assume care for the child.)

HOW WE DID THIS STUDY

This review analyzed information from interviews with 66 ORR and facility staff. It also analyzed HHS documents related to case management at ORR facilities. Finally, OIG visited the ORR EIS at Fort Bliss in June 2021.

WHAT WE FOUND

To provide care to the historically high number of unaccompanied children who arrived at the U.S. southern border in early 2021, ORR opened EISs, including the ORR EIS at Fort Bliss. From the opening of the ORR EIS at Fort Bliss in March 2021 through June 2021, operational challenges within ORR and at this EIS hindered case management, which raises concerns related to children's safe and timely release from ORR care. ORR and facility staff reported that the facility's rushed opening impeded ORR's ability to bring in experienced case managers and provide them with adequate and timely training. Because of this situation, some children waited weeks between updates from their case managers, which staff at the facility reported as causing many children to experience distress, anxiety, and in some cases, panic attacks.

Additionally, case management for children's safe and timely release from the ORR EIS at Fort Bliss faced challenges as a result of ORR-wide approaches that hindered case management across all ORR facilities. Specifically, ORR issued guidance to expedite children's release, and this guidance removed several safeguards from ORR's process for screening potential sponsors. Although the purpose of the guidance was to reduce delays, the removal of these safeguards may have also increased children's risk of release to unsafe sponsors. In addition, deficiencies with ORR's case management system-the UC Portal-contributed to case management delays and potentially increased children's risk of release to unsafe sponsors.

Finally, staff reported acts of potential retaliation and whistleblower chilling. These reported acts may have created an environment in which staff at the ORR EIS at Fort Bliss and ORR headquarters felt discouraged from raising concerns about case management and child safety to supervisors.

WHAT WE RECOMMEND

OIG recommends that-to help ensure that children receive quality case management services that prioritize their safety and well-being, including during an influx-ACF: (1) develop and implement a plan that supports ORR and its contractors in securing qualified case managers during an influx to help ensure children's safe and timely release to sponsors; (2) provide case managers with timely and comprehensive training and support to help ensure children's safe and timely release to sponsors; (3) create an emergency policy development protocol that provides for adequate input from staff with expertise in child welfare when ORR develops field guidance during an influx; (4) ensure that ORR addresses challenges regarding usability and search capabilities within its case management system, the UC Portal; and (5) ensure that ORR's employees and employees of ORR's contractors and recipients are informed about Federal whistleblower protections. ACF concurred with our recommendations.