Watchdogs Investigate Homeland Security, HHS Handling of Separated Migrant Children

Immigrant children separated from parents who were detained at the U.S./Mexico border arrive at a foster care facility in East Harlem, N.Y., wearing masks on June 22. Immigrant children separated from parents who were detained at the U.S./Mexico border arrive at a foster care facility in East Harlem, N.Y., wearing masks on June 22. Rainmaker Photo/MediaPunch /IPX

The Government Accountability Office said Wednesday it would investigate federal departments’ actions in the separation and detention of thousands of migrant children taken from their parents under the Trump administration’s aborted “zero tolerance” policy on illegal immigration. 

Additionally, the Health and Human Services Department Office of the Inspector General confirmed that it is examining HHS’s operation for housing children separated from their parents along the U.S.-Mexico border. Lawmakers demanded the review following reports of abuse and mismanagement at shelters, which are operated by HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, including the forcible injection of drugs, beatings and the use of solitary confinement.

The Office of Inspector General "is wrapping up data collection on health, safety and financial controls in 11 facilities and is actively conducting a nationwide review of ORR and grantee facilities’ steps to ensure the health and safety of children at such facilities,” said IG spokeswoman Tesia Williams in an email. “Specifically, this review will focus on employee background screening, employees’ clinical skills and training, identification and response to incidents of harm, and facility security.”

The watchdog expects to report its findings by the end of September.

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In a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar and Scott Lloyd, director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, House Democrats also raised concerns about the use of contractors to run shelters for migrant children.

“A Texas Tribune report described immigrant children being forcibly injected with drugs at the Shiloh Treatment center in Manvel, Texas,” the lawmakers wrote. “It also found that private companies received more than $1.5 billion in the past four years to operate immigrant youth shelters, even though these shelters were accused of serious lapses in care, including neglect and sexual and physical abuse.”

Meanwhile, GAO confirmed to Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., on Wednesday that it will investigate processes for tracking and reuniting children and parents at both HHS and the Homeland Security Department. That investigation came at Pallone’s request in a letter to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro.

“Reconnecting families is likely to be enormously difficult because adults and children have reportedly been placed into two separate systems,” Pallone wrote. “The parents have been referred to DHS and the Department of Justice, while the children have been classified as ‘unaccompanied minors’ and placed into the care of ORR.”

In his letter, Pallone sought an “immediate assessment” of the departments’ respective tracking systems for parents and children as they move through shelters and detention centers.

“To bring accountability and ensure these children are properly accounted for and ultimately reunited with their families, Congress needs an immediate assessment of the systems or processes by which ORR and DHS are tracking each minor in their care, as well as their respective parents or guardians from whom they were separated,” Pallone wrote.

Although President Trump ostensibly ended the practice of family separations with an executive order last week, there have been conflicting reports regarding whether that order has been implemented. A U.S. District Court judge on Tuesday ordered the government to reunify families within 30 days.

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