Feds putting bor­der chil­dren at risk

Care­less back­ground checks may re­sult in dan­ger­ous liv­ing con­di­tions

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY STEPHEN DI­NAN

While much of the fo­cus in the il­le­gal im­mi­grant surge has been on bor­der se­cu­rity, the federal govern­ment does a poor job of en­sur­ing rel­a­tives who claim chil­dren who en­ter the U.S. il­le­gally are giv­ing them the care they need, ac­cord­ing to in­ter­nal au­dits that sug­gest prob­lems re­main de­spite years of warn­ings.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion says its pri­or­ity is to make sure the chil­dren get a fair hear­ing and pro­tec­tions to which they are en­ti­tled — but the re­cent surge has so overwhelmed of­fi­cials that they are cut­ting cor­ners in back­ground checks, mean­ing some chil­dren are turned over to par­ents who can­not pro­vide for them or, in the worst of cases, could be en­dan­ger­ing them.

One non­profit es­ti­mated as many as 10 per­cent of the chil­dren are be­ing sent to live in un­ac­cept­able or dan­ger­ous con­di­tions. Given the num­bers cross­ing the bor­der, that could trans­late into thou­sands of chil­dren even­tu­ally hav­ing to be res­cued by lo­cal child ser­vices agencies.

“There’s such a large pres­sure on so­cial work­ers to re­unify chil­dren quickly, and [while] the pro­to­cols of what back­ground checks a spon­sor has to go through [have] been re­duced, the num­ber of home vis­its has [also] been re­duced,” said Caitlin San­der­son, pro­gram di­rec­tor at the Esper­anza Im­mi­grant Rights Project.

Un­der federal law, chil­dren who ar­rive at the bor­der with­out a par­ent or guardian are sup­posed to be pro­cessed by Home­land Se­cu­rity and then turned over in 72 hours to the Depart­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices. HHS is charged with plac­ing the chil­dren in the best pos­si­ble sit­u­a­tion, which of­ten means re­leas­ing them to fam­ily or other rel­a­tives or, if that’s not pos­si­ble, send­ing them to fa­cil­i­ties spe­cially set up to han­dle them.

But the num­bers have overwhelmed HHS’s Of­fice of Refugee Re­set­tle­ment, whose in­take of un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nors jumped from 1,000 a month in March 2012 to 2,000 a month a year later to 9,500 chil­dren this May.

Fin­ger­print checks were one of the early ca­su­al­ties of the surge. The govern­ment de­cided it could not run full checks on ev­ery po­ten­tial spon­sor who came to claim a child.

Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the Depart­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices, said of­fi­cials will run a pub­lic records check on all po­ten­tial spon­sors, but they do fin­ger­print checks only if the spon­sor isn’t a par­ent or le­gal guardian, if the child is 12 or younger or if they de­tect other safety con­cerns.

He said they also lis­ten to see if any­one “self-re­ports” a crim­i­nal his­tory dur­ing the re­uni­fi­ca­tion process.

When they col­lect their chil­dren, spon­sors are given a slim hand­book de­tail­ing chil­dren’s rights to en­roll in school, pro­vid­ing a phone num­ber to call to re­port hu­man traf­fick­ing and alert­ing spon­sors to the signs of child trau­matic stress.

Spon­sors do sign an agree­ment promis­ing to care for chil­dren’s phys­i­cal and men­tal health and to keep in con­tact with im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials. They are also sup­posed to vow to bring the chil­dren in once the govern­ment has de­ter­mined they are ready to be de­ported.

“The re­lease of the above-named mi­nor from the Of­fice of Refugee Re­set­tle­ment to your care does not grant the mi­nor any le­gal im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus, and the mi­nor must present him­self/her­self for im­mi­gra­tion court pro­ceed­ings,” the agree­ment reads.

Ad­vo­cates said some fam­i­lies don’t have the fi­nances to care for the chil­dren, while oth­ers live in un­safe con­di­tions.

Sex traf­fick­ing is also a ma­jor con­cern with the chil­dren. Ad­vo­cates with whom The Wash­ing­ton Times spoke said they hadn’t en­coun­tered any re­cent cases but it’s a fear nonethe­less.

The dan­gers are draw­ing at­ten­tion from Capi­tol Hill.

“As it stands, HHS is not tak­ing enough steps to en­sure safe place­ment of mi­nors who, by and large, are dis­ap­pear­ing into the Amer­i­can land­scape. Our bill would help change that,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Repub­li­can.

Mr. Cornyn is spon­sor­ing bi­par­ti­san leg­is­la­tion with Rep. Henry Cuel­lar, Texas Demo­crat, that would give the ad­min­is­tra­tion more power to de­tain and quickly de­port the chil­dren. It also im­poses stiff re­quire­ments on HHS, how­ever, in­clud­ing re­quir­ing FBI fin­ger­print back­ground checks on any­one who takes cus­tody of a child. The bill would specif­i­cally pro­hibit the govern­ment from re­leas­ing chil­dren to any­one with a con­vic­tion for sex of­fenses or hu­man traf­fick­ing.

The size of the prob­lem may be un­prece­dented, but HHS has been warned for years that it didn’t do a good job of track­ing the chil­dren.

A March 2008 HHS in­spec­tor gen­eral’s re­port said the depart­ment didn’t prop­erly fol­low up af­ter it re­leased the chil­dren to spon­sors or to non­profit fa­cil­i­ties. In fact, HHS field spe­cial­ists and co­or­di­na­tors told in­ves­ti­ga­tors they hardly ever checked up on the chil­dren once they were sent to live with spon­sors, and the non­profit fa­cil­i­ties didn’t get ad­e­quate over­sight.

“We could not defini­tively con­clude that all chil­dren were re­ceiv­ing all needed ser­vices. [Di­vi­sion of Un­ac­com­pa­nied Chil­dren’s Ser­vices] of­fi­cials ac­knowl­edged a lack of pro­gram over­sight, and no method ex­ists to en­sure that chil­dren re­main with spon­sors and that spon­sors com­ply with spon­sor agree­ments,” the in­spec­tor gen­eral’s re­port said.

Part of the prob­lem was nei­ther HHS nor Home­land Se­cu­rity knew who had re­spon­si­bil­ity for the chil­dren, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors said. They urged HHS to work out an agree­ment with Home­land Se­cu­rity on the is­sue. The in­spec­tor gen­eral re­peated that rec­om­men­da­tion in sev­eral other re­ports, in­clud­ing most re­cently in 2012, but there’s no ev­i­dence it was ever un­der­taken.

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