WASHINGTON (AP) – Migrant children in the government’s care were placed in U.S. homes and left vulnerable to human trafficking due to sometimes nonexistent screening by the Department of Health and Human Services, according to a congressional report released Thursday.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said HHS was overwhelmed by children crossing the border and weakened its child protection policies. Portman is chairman of the Senate subcommittee that held a hearing Thursday to examine weaknesses in the department’s placement of migrant children.
An investigation by the panel echoes the findings of an Associated Press investigation that found more than two dozen unaccompanied children were sent to homes across the country where they were sexually assaulted, starved or forced to work for little or no pay.
The investigation and hearing are in response to a case in Portman’s home state of Ohio, where six Guatemalan unaccompanied minors were placed with human traffickers including sponsors and their associates. Lured to the U.S. with the promise of an education, the teens instead were forced to work up to 12 hours a day on egg farms under threats of death.
Mark Greenberg, acting assistant secretary for HHS’s Administration for Children and Families, testified at the hearing that the Ohio case is a “deeply dismaying event” but said he is not able to discuss details due to an ongoing criminal investigation. He said policies in place at the time were followed.
The investigation found the agency still can’t track whether an adult is attempting to sponsor multiple children at the same time – which the report calls a warning sign for human trafficking. The agency also commonly places unaccompanied children with alleged distant relatives or family friends without setting eyes on the sponsor or his or her environment. In addition, current policies allow sponsors to prevent children from being contacted by social workers who go to the home for a checkup visit.
Portman said federal officials don’t know how many migrant children they’ve sent to live with convicted criminals across the U.S. over the last three years.
“Perhaps the most troubling, unanswered question is this: How many other cases are there like the Marion trafficking case?” Portman asked. “The answer is HHS doesn’t know.”
The panel’s senior Democrat, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, said she is “disgusted and angry” by the results of the investigation.
“Somebody’s got to step up as a result of this hearing and take full responsibility,” she said.
HHS bars releasing children to anyone convicted of child abuse or neglect or of violent felonies like homicide and rape. The department says it recently signed a contract to open new shelters, and is strengthening its protection procedures as the number of young migrants is once again rising.
According to emails, agency memos and operations manuals obtained by AP, some under the Freedom of Information Act, the agency relaxed its procedures as the number of young migrants rose in response to spiraling gang and drug violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
First, the government stopped fingerprinting most adults seeking to claim the children. In April 2014, the agency stopped requiring original copies of birth certificates to prove most sponsors’ identities. The next month, it decided not to complete forms that request sponsors’ personal and identifying information before sending many of the children to sponsors’ homes. Then, it eliminated FBI criminal history checks for many sponsors.
AP uncovered accounts of children placed with sponsors who forced them to work taking care of other children and in cantinas where women drink, dance and sometimes have sex with patrons. Other teens were placed with relatives who were abusive and locked them inside the home.