In Other Cases, Children Found to Have Been Placed With Traffickers
A top official from the Department of Health and Human Services came under fire during congressional testimony on Thursday over how the agency tracks unaccompanied minors after they are released to family or other sponsors inside the United States.
Steven Wagner, the acting assistant secretary of the agency’s Administration for Children and Families, faced a barrage of questions from senators on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations over why HHS does not track unaccompanied minors who fail to appear at their immigration court hearings. The agency has faced increased scrutiny following a scathing 2016 report from the committee that found it failed to protect unaccompanied minors from traffickers and other abuses.
“It’s just a system that has so many gaps, so many opportunities for these children to fall between the cracks, that we just don’t know what’s going on — how much trafficking or abuse or simply immigration law violations are occurring,” said the committee’s Republican chairman, Sen. Rob Portman.
In 2014, at least 10 trafficking victims, including eight minors, were discovered during a raid by federal and local law enforcement in Portman’s home state of Ohio. As FRONTLINE examined in the recent documentary Trafficked in America, HHS had released several minors to the traffickers. The committee said the case was due to policies and procedures that were “inadequate to protect the children in the agency’s care.”
After unaccompanied minors arrive in the United States, often to reunite with family members or to flee violence or poverty in their home countries, they are typically transferred from border patrol or customs officers to the custody of HHS, which often reunites the minors with a relative or another sponsor. The department is supposed to place check-in phone calls 30 days after a minor’s placement, but during the hearing, Wagner acknowledged gaps in that system.
Between October 2016 and December 2017, he said, the agency was unable to locate almost 1,500 out of the 7,635 minors that it attempted to reach — or about 19 percent. Over two dozen had run away, according to Wagner, who said the agency did not have the capacity to track them down.
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