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 or 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.
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."
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