A majority of the government’s facilities to house illegal immigrant children awaiting placement with families allowed employees to begin working before their full background checks were performed, an inspector general said in a report Wednesday, dinging the Health Department system for lapses.
Overall, the shelters that house Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) do usually perform the right background checks, though the department’s inspector general said not performing the full background checks has allowed some people to have direct access to working with children without being fully vetted.
Ten employees had even been on the job for more than a year without completed background checks from the FBI or Child Protective Services in their files, the Health Department’s inspector general said.
“Although only a small number of employees in our review required a followup background check, we found that these checks were not completed or not completed in a timely way for more than a third of these employees,” the investigators found.
The treatment of illegal immigrant children has become a raging national debate in recent months as migrants surged at the border and the administration struggled to handle them.
UACs are a subset of the issue. They are juveniles who arrived at the border without a parent. Under the law they are to be quickly processed by Homeland Security and released to the federal Health and Human Services Department, which then places them in dorm-like shelters where they await placement.
Usually they are turned over to family — often-times illegal immigrants themselves — living in the U.S., but if no match can be made they are placed in foster homes.
This is different than the Border Patrol holding facilities that have been in the news earlier this year after reports of overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. Those facilities are only meant to hold children for hours or days, until they can be processed and turned over to the Health Department.
Wednesday’s audit looked at 45 of the Health Department facilities and found most did have decent documentation of background checks. But 11 facilities lacked at least some records.
Investigators said they found 10 employees who’d been working with children for at least a year but who’d not been through an FBI criminal history check. That check is meant to screen out predators or others who might pose dangers to the children.
One facility wrongly granted its employees a waiver from the FBI check, the audit found.
The shelters reported to the audit that they’re struggling to hire staff, partly because of the strictness of the background checks.
A majority said they have trouble finding qualified mental health clinicians, too.
Low wages, rough working hours and high hurdles, such as bilingualism, compounded matters.
The 45 facilities checked in the audit employed a total of nearly 10,250 people
Only four of the 45 facilities achieved a perfect score on the inspector general’s audit.
Investigators made nine recommendations to stiffen compliance with background check rules.
The Health Department agreed to all of them, though it pointed out some of the issues the audit found are beyond its control, such as the difficulty of screening workers who lived out of the U.S. at some point, and for whom criminal background information was tough to find.
But the department said it’s already taken steps to address issues under its control, including issuing new guidance to the contract-run shelters in March.
Now the shelters are to alert HHS if background checks are becoming a hurdle.
HHS also must give final approval to all hires who have direct access to children, and the department expanded its list of disqualifying crimes to include any kind of crime involving children, any violent crime in the last 10 years, or “any kind of inappropriate sexual behavior.”
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