Washington: Migrant children in the government’s care were placed in US homes and left vulnerable to human trafficking due to sometimes non-existent screening by the Department of Health and Human Services, according to a congressional report released today.
The investigation says the department failed to run background checks on the adults in the sponsors’ households, failed to visit sponsors’ homes and failed to realize some sponsors were accumulating multiple unrelated children, which can be a sign of human trafficking.
Lawmakers contend the government weakened its child protection policies as it was overwhelmed by tens of thousands of children crossing the border from Central America.
A Senate subcommittee held a hearing today to release the report and examine weaknesses in the department’s placement of migrant children.
At the hearing, HHS officials declined to fully answer many of the senators’ questions, at times saying they did not have the legal authority from Congress to follow up on the children.
The investigation by the panel echoes the findings of an Associated Press investigation that found more than two dozen unaccompanied children were sent to homes across the country where they were sexually assaulted, starved or forced to work for little or no pay.
Sen. Rob Portman, the Republican chairman of the panel, says the HHS placement program for migrant children suffers from “serious, systemic defects.”
The congressional investigation and hearing are in response to a case in Portman’s home state of Ohio, where six Guatemalan unaccompanied minors were placed with human traffickers, including sponsors and their associates.
Lured to the US with the promise of an education, the teens instead were forced to work up to 12 hours a day on egg farms under threats of death.
The report says the department did not conduct any home visits in the Ohio case and performed visits in less than 5 per cent of cases overall from 2013 to 2015.
Mark Greenberg, acting assistant secretary for HHS’s Administration for Children and Families, testified at the hearing that the Ohio case is a “deeply dismaying event” but said he is not able to discuss details due to an ongoing criminal investigation.
He said policies in place at the time were followed.
Lawmakers from both parties bristled at the officials’ answers, saying they weren’t adequate when the lives of children had been endangered.
The panel’s top Democrat, Claire McCaskill, said she is “disgusted and angry” by the results of the investigation.