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Officials ignored child separation warnings, report finds

Months before “zero tolerance” briefly became the law of the land, formalizing the separation of children from their parents at the southern border, employees in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services raised alarm bells about the scope of separations and the harmful effects on minors in the agency’s custody. At the highest levels…

Officials ignored child separation warnings, report finds

Months before “zero tolerance” briefly became the law of the land, formalizing the separation of children from their parents at the southern border, employees in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services raised alarm bells about the scope of separations and the harmful effects on minors in the agency’s custody.
At the highest levels in the agency tasked with caring for unaccompanied migrant children, those concerns were largely ignored, and employees were even warned not to put their concerns in writing, according to a scathing report released Thursday by the HHS Inspector General. Despite repeated warnings from within, the agency failed to prepare for what its own employees accurately predicted would be a result of family separation: overcrowding and lengthened time in custody for children, a population for whom each day detained is considered deleterious to long-term physical and psychological health.”I said (the Office of Refugee Resettlement) was seeing much higher levels of separation, and that those separations were impacting particularly babies and young children. I said this so many times that I was called a broken record,” one employee told the Inspector General.
As part of its “zero tolerance” crackdown to criminally prosecute border-crossing parents, U.S. immigration officials separated more than 2,800 families in the spring of 2018. Through a court mandate, most of them have been reunited. Last October, however, the administration revealed it had separated another 1,556 migrant children from their parents between the summer of 2017 and the time “zero tolerance” was fully implemented across the border. Another told investigators she warned administrators about the harm separation might do to children.”I told them it was going to traumatize children to separate them unnecessarily. I said that to anyone I could,” the employee said.The report follows a 2019 exposé by the same Inspector General that found the Trump administration began separating families far earlier than originally acknowledged, in 2017 just months after the president took office. In Wednesday’s report, investigators examined failures by HHS, which operates the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), to act on warnings and plan for the eventual wave of unaccompanied children — both separated and not — that would overwhelm the agency in 2018 and early 2019. The failures were identified through interviews with senior HHS officials and staff, employees at 45 care provider facilities and review of thousands of internal and interagency documents and emails, according to Thursday’s report.”ORR staff believed that the UAC Program lacked the bed capacity to accommodate a large increase in separated children and were also concerned about the trauma such a policy would inflict on children. At several points before the zero-tolerance policy was implemented, ORR staff shared these concerns with the ORR Director, the Acting Assistant Secretary for ACF, and the Counselor to the Secretary for Human Services Policy,” the Inspector General wrote. “OIG found no evidence that these three senior HHS officials took action to protect children’s interests in response to the information and concerns raised by ORR staff.”The response from administrators at ORR was to warn staff against raising these red flags. The Inspector General wrote that staff interviewed “recalled receiving repeated, general reminders to be cautious about putting information in writing.”
The Inspector General concluded that “these repeated reminders to limit written information may have had a chilling effect on frank discussion about the possibility that larger scale family separation would occur.”Some bosses indicated to investigators that they did not believe family separation would impact basic HHS services. The Inspector General wrote that the ORR Director during that era, Scott Lloyd, said “a child that comes into ORR’s care as a separated child is treated the same as any child referred to the program.” The former Acting Assistant Secretary for the Administration for Children and Families, Steven Wagner, said “separated children are not ‘materially different’ from other children entering ORR care,” according to the report.One HHS administrator told investigators they were torn. She conceded that “it is not great for children to be separated from their parents,” but criticized the parents who take the risk of crossing the border with their children.”I do not know what the moral right thing to do is in this situation,” the administrator, identified as the Counselor to the Secretary for Human Services Policy, said.She also said they felt handcuffed in how to respond to family separations amid a wider law enforcement crackdown on immigration.There was tension between HHS and law enforcement, she said, “noting that HHS suggestions regarding immigration policy were sometimes interpreted as obstructing law enforcement efforts.”
Officials also said the agency was focused on establishing a controversial memorandum of understanding that would allow sharing of biographic information between HHS and DHS. The agreement called for the fingerprinting of potential sponsors of unaccompanied migrant children — usually U.S.-based family members willing to take them in. It was scrapped months after implementation after officials concluded it led to a prolonged stay for minors in the agency’s custody, while not sufficiently safeguarding their safety.Employees told investigators their warnings that the memorandum, too, would strain the HHS system were ignored. They accurately predicted that it would dramatically slow down the process by which children were released, and increase the length of time in custody. The results were catastrophic. By the end of 2018, a system that had for years averaged a stay of between 30 and 45 days for children in custody, increased to an average of nearly 100 days. Meanwhile, the HHS system of facilities for children was pressed to its limits, forcing U.S. Customs and Border Protection — which is generally required by law to transfer unaccompanied children to HHS custody within 72 hours after apprehending them — to hold children for far longer. Children that make it to HHS care receive comprehensive medical examinations within 48 hours of arrival. Some Border Patrol facilities were not equipped with even toothpaste and soap for children, and could provide only basic health care. Border Patrol stations, generally designed to hold single adults, also do not provide vaccinations. In late 2018 and early 2019, six children died in U.S immigration custody.Thursday’s report also detailed how top HHS leadership was reluctant to play a vocal and active role in shaping immigration policy, seeing it as a task for the Homeland Security and Justice departments. The acting assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families division of HHS believed the department “should not seek to affect immigration policy regardless of its impact on the UAC program” and that it “should adapt to whatever policies are put in place,” the report said.”Our participation in immigration policy is very limited and well-defined. Our job is to have a bed available for the next child that is brought to us by ICE or CBP. That is what our role is and what we focus on. Our role is limited to that,” the acting assistant secretary said, according to the report. 
In a response included in the Inspector General’s report, Assistant Secretary for Children and Families Lynn Johnson defended the agency and said it was beholden to decisions made by other agencies.Johnson said HHS “does not have a role in shaping upstream immigration enforcement policy… “In some instances, the Department of Justice of DHS may not communicate with HHS for law enforcement or other legitimate legal or policy reasons.”
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