WASHINGTON â€” Senate investigators found that the departments of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security areÂ not taking basic steps to ensure that migrant minors are well cared for after theyâ€™re released from government custody to awaitÂ court proceedings.
HHS and DHS have taken some modest steps, but they have failed to implement other critical safeguards that Senate investigators say would protect those children,Â according to a report issued Wednesday by the Senate Department of Homeland Security and Governmental Affairâ€™s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation.
The majority of children in government custody are deemed “unaccompanied minors” who came to the U.S. without a legal guardian. But thousands were added to the system after President Donald Trump implemented his “zero tolerance” immigration enforcement policy that separated more than 2,500 families who crossed the border together.
Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman, the subcommittee chair, said the report “details some small progress” but there was also a “glaring need for these agencies to take more responsibility for ensuring these children are safe and appear at their immigration court proceedings.”
The report, the second since the subcommitteeÂ began looking into the matter in 2015, focuses on the care of children after they have been released to sponsors in the United States.
Senate investigators foundÂ that no government agency is checking in to follow up on a child’s care after they are placed with a sponsor, except, in some cases, for a telephone call made 30 days from the placement.Â
The lack of accountability means the government is losing track of children within the United States and thatâ€™s when bad things can happen, investigators said.
Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, the committee’s top Democrat, had said congressional oversightÂ revealedÂ “serious failures across the federal government that are putting unaccompanied children at risk.”
According to the report, HHS attempted to follow up with 7,635 children, 30 days after they were placed with their sponsors, and found they were â€œunable to determine with certainty the whereabouts of 1,475â€ of them;Â 28 had flat-out â€œrun away.â€
The subcommittee began investigating treatment of unaccompanied minorsÂ in 2015 after federal authorities exposed a labor trafficking scheme at an egg farm in Marion, Ohio. Nearly a dozen teenagers and young adults were essentially working as slave laborers. The workers â€” from Guatemala and as young as 14 â€” were forced to work long hours and housed in trailers with no heat, hot water, or working toilets.Â
After news broke about the trafficking in his state, Portman launched the first probe with Sen. Claire McCaskill, who was then the subcommittee’s top Democrat.
The first investigation concluded HHS did not conduct proper background checks, perform regular home visits or take other basic steps to ensure that vulnerable children were placed into the care of appropriate sponsors.
The follow up probe done by Portman and Carper, who is now the subcommitteeâ€™s ranking member, found that HHS wasÂ conducting background checks on child sponsorsÂ but not doing the follow up work required to make sure the children are in safe conditions.
While the report is focused on children who came the U.S. without a guardian, the number of children being treated as unaccompanied minors increased after the Trump Administrationâ€™s â€œzero toleranceâ€ policy.Â The policy, which has since been reversed, required families who entered the U.S. illegally to be separated, with the children treated as unaccompanied minors.
The separations have ended and the U.S. government is working to reunite more than 2,500 migrant families. The report found that the additional children, who were not unaccompanied when they got to the U.S., “exacerbated these problems.”
Portman and Carper will lead a hearing with HHS, DHS and Department of Justice officials Thursday to discuss the findings of the investigation.
Contributing: Deirdre Shesgreen and Alan Gomez