Children line up to enter a tent at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Homestead, Fla., in 2019.

Children line up to enter a tent at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Homestead, Fla., in 2019. Wilfredo Lee / AP

Watchdog: HHS Hasn't Done Enough to Catalog Reports of Sexual Misconduct in Migrant Children Facilities

In a six month period in 2018, the Health and Human Services Department IG found more than 700 possible sexual incidents of varying severity, including 48 incidents of misconduct by an adult against a minor.

The Health and Human Services Department's inspector general on Thursday said the agency responsible for caring for immigrant unaccompanied minors has not done enough to catalog reported incidents of sexual misconduct so that the agency can properly respond to them.

HHS' Office of Refugee Resettlement has been responsible for the care and safety of both unaccompanied minors entering the United States and children taken away from their parents at the border as part of the Trump administration's family separation policy. The agency funds a series of roughly 170 privately owned but state-licensed care facilities to house detainees until a sponsor can be found for the children.

The department's Office of the Inspector General examined incident reports from 45 care provider facilities submitted between January and July 2018 and found more than 750 unique incidents involving alleged conduct of a sexual nature. That number accounts for around 700 incidents involving conduct between minors at the facilities, as well as 48 allegations of misconduct by an adult against a child.

The inspector general wrote that the incidents ranged in severity, with about half involving less severe instances of "inappropriate sexual behavior," including a child's "drawing of a sexual nature" and a minor opening the bathroom door while another child was inside. Additionally, facilities were required to report incidents regardless of whether the conduct was consensual or nonconsensual.

Another 19% of incidents constituted alleged sexual harassment, including children making sexual comments toward others and a staff member who "seemed to repeatedly flirt with a minor," while 32% of incidents were considered sexual abuse.

Sexual abuse allegations cited by the inspector general included a minor touching another's buttocks with a spoon, a minor grabbing another's buttocks, and a staff member who allegedly "fondled [a] minor's genitals on multiple occasions."

The inspector general's office said it was unable to independently verify the validity of any given reported incident. But it said the system lacks the ability for the Office of Refugee Resettlement to track what facilities did in response to individual incidents.

Although the office's policy states that facilities must immediately suspend any staff member involved in an incident categorized as sexual abuse or harassment, the incident reporting system does not include a field for facilities to indicate whether they have done so. And there similarly is not a field for facilities to report whether they have reported incidents to law enforcement and state agencies, as required.

"[The Office of Refugee Resettlement's] incident reporting system lacks designated fields for facilities to indicate whether they took all required steps or to explain why they did not," the inspector general wrote. "This limits [the office's] oversight capacity because [office] staff cannot quickly and easily access this information to elevate incidents that require immediate attention and ensure that facilities are taking required steps to address serious incidents. Further, [the office] cannot track or trend these data across facilities to oversee compliance with requirements."

Additionally, the inspector general found that the manner in which the agency collects data on incidents of misconduct is such that it "requires extensive manual review."

"In general, the incident reporting system uses numerous open-text fields to capture a wide range of information that require federal field specialists and other [Office of Refugee Resettlement] staff to review narrative summaries to access key information," the report stated. "Manual reviews with key information entered in different ways in open-text fields raises the potential that key information may be missed."

The watchdog agency recommended that the office assess its incident reporting system to find ways to improve it, looking at both existing database fields and adding new ones. Additionally, officials should better "track and trend" incident report information to more quickly respond to potential safety issues at care facilities, and the agency should work with facilities to address staffing shortages.

HHS concurred with all recommendations, and said it is currently working with a developer to "design and prototype a replacement for the current [unaccompanied children] case management system." The agency also has expanded the team responsible for monitoring reports by adding a data analyst.