Protesters demonstrate against the family separation policy in July 2018.

Protesters demonstrate against the family separation policy in July 2018. Jacquelyn Martin/AP file photo

Watchdog: Poor Communication Left HHS Ill-Equipped to Handle Family Separation Policy 

Leaders ignored warnings from career staff that would have helped them better care for an influx of children, IG found.  

A watchdog said on Thursday that botched communications both internally and with other agencies left the Health and Human Services Department unprepared to properly care for a surge of immigrant children in its custody during the Trump administration’s family separation policy at the Southwestern border.

Although the Homeland Security Department, in coordination with the Justice Department, separated families of unauthorized immigrants along the United States-Mexico border under the administration's “zero tolerance” policy, children were typically placed in HHS’ custody and cared for by the department’s Unaccompanied Alien Children program. The policy to increase criminal prosecutions for those crossing the border illegally ran from May to June 2018, but was carried out informally before and after as well. 

While roughly 2,700 children were separated from their parents during the official six-week run of the policy, as of November 2019, over 5,400 children had been separated from their parents at the border since July 2017, the Associated Press reported. The IG reported that HHS’ interagency communication issues were among those that hindered its ability to provide sufficient care for children and reunite them with their parents.

"Future immigration trends, practices and policies will continue to affect the Unaccompanied Alien Children Program. In this quickly changing landscape, clear lines of communication across federal agencies and within HHS are vital to its ability to adapt and respond effectively to new developments," said HHS Principal Deputy Inspector General Christi Grimm, in a press release. "The vulnerabilities we identified need to be addressed to ensure that HHS can effectively care for children in its custody.”

The IG reported that in the lead up to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announcing the “zero-tolerance” policy in May 2018, senior officials “disregarded specific, repeated warnings from [HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement] staff” that DHS was considering such a policy after seeing “atypically large numbers of separated children” come into their care. 

There was “no evidence” the counselor to human services policy secretary, Administration for Children and Families acting assistant secretary, and Refugee Resettlement director “took action to protect children’s interests in response to the information and concerns raised by [refugee resettlement] staff,” said the IG. 

Career staff told the IG that not putting information on controversial policies in writing was part of the management culture at the department, which could have had a chilling effect on honest discussion about the reality that this policy would happen. Not having the policy in writing also could have contributed to senior managers dismissing staff warnings and may have made it harder to determine what went wrong in carrying out the policy after the fact, the report said.

Due to the lack of a clear directive from the Refugee Resettlement director in order to plan for the policy, the Unaccompanied Alien Children program was “in the position of reacting to changes as they occurred rather than taking proactive measures that might mitigate risk to children.” This included having age-appropriate physical and mental care for babies, children and teenagers as well as having sufficient living accommodations. 

For example, staff attempted to tell senior leaders that they did not have enough beds for the surge of children that would be coming into their care. This wound up being the case and led to delays in children being transferred from Customs and Border Protection to HHS facilities. The IG cited a September 2018 report from the Homeland Security Inspector General that found when the “zero tolerance” policy was in effect over 800 children were in Customs and Border Protection custody for more than the legal limitation of 72 hours.

Additionally, “the lack of planning also contributed to data limitations, complicating efforts to identify separated children.” In June 2018, a federal district judge ordered the government to end family separations and begin the reunification process. The IG reported that HHS and DHS didn’t have a systematic method to collect, track and share information on family separations. Office of Refugee Resettlement staff was “independently monitoring intakes of separated children—through informal methods that were unconnected to the [Unaccompanied Alien Children] portal—and sought to coordinate with DHS offices at the local level.”

Then HHS and DHS had to use over 60 datasets and manually review over 12,000 case files in the reunification process. This was also complicated by the multiple lawsuits challenging the policy. In some cases children had several attorneys representing them and HHS staff told the IG that coordination among the groups caused confusion and sometimes delay of children's release from HHS. 

To conduct the audit, the IG interviewed agency staff and senior officials, visited 45 HHS care provider facilities and reviewed over 5,000 internal documents. Career officials testified at a hearing last year about many of the issues the IG raised in the report. The auditors acknowledged that the department has made some improvements on tracking separated children, but issues persist.

Therefore, the IG recommended HHS prioritize children’s interests in agency decision-making processes, create formal agreements with Justice and Homeland Security to bolster cross-agency communications on immigration policies, improve communication with care provider facilities and use automated rather than manual processing to track separated children to minimize human error. The department concurred with the recommendations.

The IG noted although its investigation was on the “zero-tolerance” policy, “many of the problems we identified speak to broader communication and management concerns” at the department. In an ever-changing policy environment with the Trump administration often implementing directives with little to no warning, the IG said it is imperative HHS take up the recommendations.