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“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.

The Congressional Research Service said about 85 percent of children who go through HHS custody ultimately are released to family members in the U.S.

Both Ms. Sanderson and Dawnya Underwood, assistant director for family reunification at the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said one important step is boosting services for children once they’ve been released.

HHS launched a pilot program June 30 to try to boost post-release services for some children who are placed with parents or guardians. The program evaluates what kinds of services the children need and also focuses on the sponsors, informing them of their obligations and making sure they know how to get health care or enroll the children in school.

Ms. Underwood said the post-release services also boost the number of children who show up for their immigration hearings.

Despite the difficulties they face, Ms. Sanderson said, she believes HHS officials are trying to find the best solutions they can in the face of the surge.

“I really think they are doing about as well as they can with the resources they have,” she said. “I think the problem is just so much bigger than them that it points to the larger picture and larger immigration reform that needs to happen, and that’s not something they have control over.”