On 26 April 2018, the New York Times and the Associated Press both reported that the U.S. government had lost track of nearly 1,500 migrant children it had placed into the homes of caregivers. The alarming nature of the headlines prompted many readers to question the veracity of the reports, but they are apparently true.
The Times and AP reports were based on statements made by Steven Wagner, acting assistant secretary of Administration for Children and Families for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on 26 April 2018 at a Senate Homeland Security subcommittee oversight hearing, statements which can be viewed in full here. According to that transcript, Wagner told senators:
From October to December 2017, ORR [Office of Refugee Resettlement] attempted to reach 7,635 UAC [unaccompanied alien children] and their sponsors. Of this number, ORR reached and received agreement to participate in the safety and well-being call from approximately 86 percent of sponsors. From these calls, ORR learned that 6,075 UAC remained with their sponsors. Twenty-eight UAC had run away, five had been removed from the United States, and 52 had relocated to live with a non-sponsor. ORR was unable to determine with certainty the whereabouts of 1,475 UAC.
We note that this passage means that ORR made some effort to ascertain the status of children placed with sponsors and were unable to determine where some 1,475 of those children were, because those sponsors were unreachable by telephone or didn't respond. This doesn't mean those children are "missing" in the sense of being outside the home, control, or care of their guardians, but rather that the ORR couldn't verify their exact whereabouts at the moment.
We reached out to HHS and were told by a spokesman that when children cross into the U.S. alone, their custody is transferred from the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees immigration enforcement, to HHS's Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Children are then released to a sponsor in the U.S. who is selected and approved by ORR. These sponsors undergo background checks, and although the majority of such sponsors (85%) are parents or immediate family members, HHS told us, the remainder are typically more distant relatives or non-relatives whom the children had some previous relationship with:
When a UAC is placed with a sponsor, he or she ceases to be in the custody of the U.S. government and all HHS-provided subsistence — food, shelter, clothing, healthcare and education — ends at that point and the child becomes the responsibility of his or her parent, guardian or sponsor.
Responses to questions about the whereabouts of children from whom the HHS had distanced themselves once those children were placed with sponsors drew backlash from lawmakers at the 26 April oversight hearing.
Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat from North Dakota, lambasted Wagner for failing to keep tabs on the unaccompanied children:
You are the worst foster parents in the world. You don't even know where they are. And we're failing. I don't think there's any doubt about it. And when we fail for kids, it makes me angry. Where are these kids? Why don't we know where they are, and how come after months of investigation by this committee, we don't seem to be getting any better answers, Mr. Wagner?
The outcry over the fact that the federal government had lost track of hundreds of vulnerable children was compounded by outrage over news that immigration authorities were making good on new Trump administration directives to prosecute parents caught making unauthorized border crossings with their children, and in so doing separate the kids from their parents. The New York Times noted in April 2018 that 700 children, over 100 of them younger than four years old, had been taken from their parents at the border since October 2017.
Social media users widely shared an Arizona Daily Star report describing the wrenching scene at a court hearing in which a distraught mother who had been separated from her sons, aged 8 and 11 years, was given no information on when they might be reunited:
Alma Jacinto covered her eyes with her hands as tears streamed down her cheeks.
The 36-year-old from Guatemala was led out of the federal courtroom without an answer to the question that brought her to tears: When would she see her boys again?
Jacinto wore a yellow bracelet on her left wrist, which defense lawyers said identifies parents who are arrested with their children and prosecuted in Operation Streamline, a fast-track program for illegal border crossers.
Moments earlier, her public defender asked the magistrate judge when Jacinto would be reunited with her sons, ages 8 and 11. There was no clear answer for Jacinto, who was sentenced to time served on an illegal-entry charge after crossing the border with her sons near Lukeville on May 14.
Senator Heitkamp slammed both HHS and the new policy in a statement her office sent to us:
The more we learn about childhood trauma, the clearer it becomes that the negative consequences of trauma can reverberate for a lifetime. There’s nothing more traumatic for a child than being separated from their parents, so we have to approach this challenge in a compassionate and humanitarian way. There’s nothing compassionate about losing track of over 1,500 children – that’s negligence, and it’s an outrage. I will continue to push to hold HHS accountable for its failure to keep track of the children in its care, and ensure that proper procedures are in place to compassionately care for kids who are facing unimaginable stress and trauma.
HHS has failed to prove that they have the resources, processes, or frankly the desire to truly handle this situation. As I have said, they have proven to be the worst foster care system I’ve seen – and yet even more children are expected be forced into a clearly broken system. This is not how we should treat children, regardless of what country they come from. We have a moral and humanitarian duty to protect and care for these children properly while they are under federal supervision and in this country – regardless of circumstances.