An asylum-seeking boy from Central America runs down a hallway in a San Diego shelter, after arriving from an immigration detention center.

An asylum-seeking boy from Central America runs down a hallway in a San Diego shelter, after arriving from an immigration detention center. Gregory Bull/AP

HHS Vigorously Defended Its Employees, But Senators Still Want Answers on Alleged Sexual Assault Against Immigrant Children

Request for investigation comes after newly released data show 4,500 allegations of sexual abuse against children in government care.

A bipartisan pair of senators is asking for an investigation into alleged sexual abuse against minors in the custody of the Health and Human Services Department, days after the agency sought to downplay the misconduct.

The request followed data unveiled by Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., showing that HHS received more than 4,500 complaints of sexual assault from migrant children from fiscal years 2015-2018, and the Justice Department received 1,300. The issue sparked a firestorm after Deutch questioned an HHS official at a congressional hearing last week and indicated department staff were alleged to be involved in the misconduct. HHS pushed back, both in real time and after the hearing, to make clear that while the data showed 178 allegations against adult staff, none of its own employees faced such accusations.

Unaccompanied immigrant children are typically transferred to the custody of HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement after Customs and Border Protection personnel initially detain and process them. The refugee resettlement office also took responsibility for children separated from their parents while the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy was in effect. HHS noted, however, that it uses licensed facilities to care for unaccompanied children and that safety of minors was its “top concern.”

Deutch’s “knowing mischaracterization of the data—and his impugning of the [Office of Refugee Resettlement] federal staff—was an immoral and indecent insult to all of the career civil servants who are dedicated to ensuring the health, safety and welfare of the children in the unaccompanied alien children program,” Jonathan Hays, the office's acting director, said in a statement after last week’s hearing.

Hays asked the congressman to apologize “to these career civil servants for his untoward and unfounded comments,” but Deutch—who during the hearing said if the alleged misconduct was not carried out “by HHS staff, then by staff that HHS oversees,” noting that is “no less horrific”—has so far declined to do so. The acting director also noted that sexual abuse allegations have remained stable for several years and that the “vast majority” of reports of inappropriate behavior involved only the minor immigrants themselves. The 178 allegations involving facility staff were “fully investigated and remedial action was taken where appropriate,” Hays said.

To Deutch, however, the data demonstrated that the Trump administration is “not equipped to keep these children safe inside their facilities.”

In a letter sent on Wednesday to HHS Inspector General Daniel Levinson, Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, asked for an investigation into “the alleged widespread and long-term pattern of sexual abuse against unaccompanied children in HHS facilities.”

“Immigrant families and children deserve to be treated with basic human dignity and respect, and should never be subjected to these forms of abuse,” they senators wrote.

The senators said IG oversight was required as HHS itself was not properly investigating the allegations. They asked the investigators to examine the allegations, how HHS assesses its contract facilities and what steps should be taken to prevent the alleged assaults. The IG did not respond to an inquiry into whether it would launch such an investigation.

After initially defending his own employees, Jonathan White, a career member of HHS’ Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and the former Office of Refugee Resettlement deputy director for unaccompanied alien children, conceded at last week’s hearing that, “Any time a child is abused in the care of ORR is one too many.”

The administration’s ability to care for immigrant children again sparked tension at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on Wednesday, with Homeland Security Department Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on the defensive about DHS’ own facilities for detaining minors.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., demanded that Nielsen admit DHS was putting immigrant children in “cages.”  

“They were not made to detain children,” Nielsen said. “As they are processed through, they are in subparts of those facilities.” She added, “To my knowledge, CBP never purposely put a child in a cage if you mean a cage like this,” before pantomiming a square structure.

Thompson said he was not interested in litigating semantics and asked Nielsen if the existing policy was bad, “then admit it.” Nielsen later said DHS’ facilities provide “room to sit and stand and lay down.”

“So does my dog’s cage,” responded Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J.