Feds: Thousands more migrant children were separated from families; we still don't know total number
Thousands of children were separated from their families before the formal start of the Trump administration's zero-tolerance policy in spring, meaning the total number of migrant families affected is higher than previously thought.
Officials at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the government agency tasked with caring for these children, don't know the exact number of children separated from their familiesprior to the official announcement of the zero-tolerance policy in late April and early May 2018.The agency tracked children taken from their parents only "informally" at the time, according to an audit released by the agency's Office of Inspector General.
Health and Human Services is the agency responsible for caring for migrant children who arrive at the border unaccompanied by parents until they can be placed with relatives or other sponsors already in the U.S. But under the zero-tolerance policy, children separated from parents at the border were also placed in its care.
A court order in June required the Trump administration to reunite nearly 2,700 children forcibly separated by the government under the zero-tolerance policy. But by then, officials now estimate, thousands of other children had already been separated from their parents and later released.
The report noted that some children continue to be separated from their families even after the formal end of zero tolerance, most often because the Department of Homeland Security says their parents have criminal histories, making them ineligible for reunification, according to the report.
An additional 118 children were found to have been separated after the zero-tolerance policy supposedly ended, the report said.
OIG investigators said on a conference call that DHS has provided limited information on these recent separations.
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When did separations start?
Federal officials noticed a spike in children separated from their parents as early as summer 2017, when Customs and Border Protection officials in the El Paso area began formally separating families as part of a pilot program, said Ann Maxwell, OIG's assistant inspector general for evaluations.
The policy didn't formally begin elsewhere until April 2018.
The audit noted that DHS sometimes separates children from parents for the child's safety or well-being, such as when parents are found to pose a danger or can't care for the child because of illness or injury.
These children are held in government custody along with migrant children who arrive without parents.
But as the Trump administration ramped up its zero-tolerance policy, the percentage of children in government custody who had been forcibly separated from their parents soared, according to the report.
By August, HHS' informal tracking of separated children showed they made up 3.6 percent of the total number of children in their care, up from 0.3 percent in late 2016, according to the report.
The zero-tolerance policy was aimed at stemming a rise of of migrant families, mostly from Mexico and Central America, arriving at the southern border, many of whom the Trump administration accused of exploiting "loopholes" in the the nation's immigration system by making fraudulent asylum claims knowing they would be released.
Under the policy, anyone caught entering the country illegally was subject to criminal prosecution, even parents arriving with children who had been mostly immune to prosecution in the past.
As a result of the zero-tolerance policy, the government forcibly took children away from parents being prosecuted. The government then placed separated children in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, and sent them to shelters all over the U.S., essentially treating them as if they had arrived on their own, while their parents were held in prisons or jails awaiting criminal prosecution, often in other states.
The government argued the family separations were necessary to avoid violating a long-standing court order known as the Flores Settlement, which prohibits the government from holding migrant children in jails or prisons.
The Flores Settlement also says that migrant families caught entering the U.S. illegally cannot be held for longer than 20 days out of concern for the welfare of children. The Trump administration says Flores has created a "loophole" in the nation's immigration system that should be closed.
The Trump administration was forced to abandon the family separations after scenes of screaming children being ripped from their parents' arms at Border Patrol processing stations ignited international outrage.
In response to a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union, a federal judge in June ordered all eligible separated children reunited, by which time thousands of separated children had come in and out of HHS custody.
Challenges in identifying separated children
There was no single database of separated children at the time the zero-tolerance policy was instituted, requiring HHS to query more than 60 databases to identify them to respond to the court order.
OIG investigators said the agency couldn't specify how many were separated before the June court order because identifying those children would divert resources from caring for children currently in its custody.
OIG officials said they couldn't determine whom children separated from parents prior to the announcement of zero-tolerance were released to, although children in its care are typically released to parents, relatives or friends already in the U.S. who agree to sponsor them.
HHS has modified its case-management systems to formally track separated children. Border Patrol agents will now be able to directly enter information about whether a child was separated from his or her family and who the parents are.
Those issues in identifying separated children caused HHS to revise the number of children covered under the court order multiple times throughout the past six months, officials said.
More reports coming
OIG will release more reports this year into the health needs and safety of children at HHS facilities, including how the agency responded to claims of harm.
Last year, The Arizona Republic documented multiple cases of abuse at shelters across Arizona, including sexual-abuse cases that led to the arrest of workers at Southwest Key shelters. One case in which workers dragged children at a Southwest Key shelter in Youngtown helped lead to its eventual closing. That case was referred by law enforcement for criminal reviewafter The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com published surveillance videos obtained by the state.
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