After a rough start, federal social workers are now doing a better job of keeping tabs on the illegal immigrant children under their care from the Obama-era border surge, including making efforts to follow up with the children and their sponsors to make sure they’re being treated well, according to a government audit released Thursday.
The government still missed following up in about 11 percent of cases, leaving a significant hole in protections.
But the government did connect with sponsors in 89 percent of cases and with children 84 percent of the time, and reports of abuse, neglect, abandonment or runaways were relatively rare, according to the Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general.
“HHS has improved its coordination with DHS and increased its efforts to promote the safety and well-being of UAC after their release from HHS custody,” investigators concluded.
The report was prompted by the height of the immigration surge in 2014, when 10,000 unaccompanied alien children (UAC) were being nabbed at the border each month. Under Obama administration interpretations of federal law, the children were generally turned over to sponsors or family — including illegal immigrant parents — as quickly as possible.
That sparked fears that HHS, the department charged with finding sponsors, was cutting corners and potentially leaving the children in unsafe conditions. One criminal case was even brought against human traffickers using UAC for forced labor.
But the new report found that HHS made decent efforts to follow up on the children that passed through their custody and were eventually placed with sponsors.
Of 52,147 children released in 2016, HHS deemed 10,546 of them in need of full follow-up case management services, either because of previous abuse or because they were 12 years of age or younger and were sent to live with a nonrelative.
Of those, 89 cases were reported to child protective services for potential problems.
Auditors reviewed a subset of children who came through HHS custody in 2016 and found the department was able to contact sponsors for a follow-up check in 89 percent of the cases and made contact with the children themselves 84 percent of the time.
Those follow-ups led to 36 children being flagged for local investigative agencies, including 22 runaways, five children who weren’t in school, three allegations of neglect or abandonment, two allegations of human trafficking and one sexual abuse case.
HHS also launched a hotline for reports of sexual abuse, and 10 cases were reported during the six-month period auditors studied in 2016.
HHS said the findings showed improvement over the last decade, since a 2008 audit found poor communication between Homeland Security, which apprehended the children, and HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, which connects the children with sponsors.
“ORR continues to identify additional areas where it can strengthen the protections in place for UAC during and following ORR custody,” the department said in a statement, saying the follow-up checks were part of the improvements.
The department said the 11 percent of parents who aren’t reached in the follow-ups could have normal reasons including moving to a new address or changing phone numbers.
The UAC surge exposed major holes in U.S. immigration policy, with the Obama administration struggling to send a message to Central Americans not to attempt the dangerous journey, which saw children beaten, robbed, hurt in accidents and raped during the trip. Rape was so much a part of the trip that experts said young girls would even start taking birth control pills ahead of the journey to avoid pregnancy.
The Trump administration has pursued a stiffer policy toward those who came during the surge, with a targeted action last month to arrest and deport 120 UAC and 73 people who came as families.
Each of them had been ordered deported but were defying the order.
The UAC targeted for deportation had either aged out of protections, having reached age 18, or were at least 16 and had criminal records or suspected gang ties.
“Illegally entering the United States as a family unit or UAC does not protect individuals from being subject to the immigration laws of this country,” said Thomas Homan, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “I urge anyone considering making the dangerous and unlawful journey to the United States: Please do not take this risk.”
Immigrant rights advocates, however, criticized the arrests, asserting that the children had “fled violence in Central America” and should be treated as refugees.
“The Statue of Liberty weeps today,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice.
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