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U.S. sponsors for unaccompanied migrant children not properly screened, federal watchdog says

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The Department of Health and Human Services placed unaccompanied migrant children crossing the border in 2021 with some U.S. sponsors who weren’t properly vetted, raising concerns they could be exploited, according to a new report from the agency’s government watchdog.

The Office of Inspector General issued a blistering 62-page report last week detailing troubling gaps in sponsor screenings administered by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is under HHS’s Administration for Children and Families.

“It is important for ORR to protect children from unsafe placements by taking appropriate steps to screen sponsors while also releasing children from care in a timely manner and without unnecessary delay,” the OIG report states. “The age of these children, their separation from family, and the dangerous journey to the United States make these children especially vulnerable to exploitation.”

The OIG findings are based on a random sampling of 343 cases from March to April 2021, when the ORR placed a record 16,790 children with sponsors.

“We acknowledge that ORR received a surge in referrals of unaccompanied children during our review period in 2021, that created operational constraints and hindered its ability to fulfill its mission,” the report states.

However, the ORR must be prepared to safely place children with sponsors in the event of future influxes, the OIG concluded.

The investigation comes amid reports that ORR has released children to sponsors who have exploited them and forced them to work in dangerous jobs that violate child labor laws.

However, for the most part, sponsors are “good, honest people,” said Rebecca Brown, interim supervising attorney of the unaccompanied minors team at Public Counsel in Los Angeles.

“We need to place immigrant children in a safe environment, not immigrant detention facilities, which have been shown to subject children to unsafe conditions,” Brown said. “We have to make sure we protect the most vulnerable amongst us.”

Influx to California

California is second in the nation behind Texas in the number of children who cross the border with Mexico alone and, since 2015, has placed more than 68,000 with sponsors.

“California and our state coalition partners welcome nearly half of all immigrant children released from federal immigration custody, and we have a strong interest in protecting their rights and well-being,”  California Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a statement.

From October to December 2023,  which are the most current statistics available, 1,101 unaccompanied children were placed in Los Angeles County, 200 in Orange County, 160 in Riverside County, and 97 in San Bernardino County.

Most unaccompanied children arriving at the U.S. border are from the Northern Triangle region of Central America, which includes Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, according to the National Immigration Forum,  a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization. Many of the children flee their homeland due to poverty, crime and gang violence.

While statistics show that 75% of unaccompanied minors range in age from 15 to 17, it has been reported that some children traveling alone are as young as 6, according to Save the Children, a Connecticut nonprofit organization.

Problems uncovered

Unaccompanied children are those who have no lawful immigration status in the U.S., are younger than 18, and do not have a parent or legal guardian available to provide care and custody. Children in the custody of any federal agency, including the Department of Homeland Security, must be transferred to ORR within 72 hours from the time they are determined to be unaccompanied unless there are extenuating circumstances.

ORR is required by federal law to make safe and timely placements for unaccompanied children in the least restrictive setting possible. Children remain in custody until an appropriate U.S. sponsor is identified, until they turn 18, or when their immigration status is resolved.

“In the vast majority of cases, the safest place for a child is with their family, and every day that they are needlessly separated from them can cause lasting damage,  said Mickey Donovan-Kaloust, director of legal services for the Immigrant Defenders Law Center in Los Angeles. “It’s important for ORR to conduct the sponsor review process in a high-quality manner that does not let children fall through the cracks, but we must also guard against unnecessary delays in the reunification process.”

ORR is required to screen the criminal background of potential sponsors, including whether they are listed on sex offender registries. Some sponsors also may be required to undergo a home study.

The OIG investigation found that 16% of the children’s case files failed to contain documentation indicating one or more required sponsor safety checks were conducted. Furthermore, it was determined that case files were never updated for 19% of children released to sponsors with pending FBI fingerprint or state child abuse and neglect registry checks.

“When children’s case files are not updated with the results of these checks after children are released, it also has the potential to impede thorough screenings for sponsors during future sponsorship attempts,” says the report. “If these results are not contained in children’s case files, potential safety concerns could be missed during future sponsorship reviews.”

ORR staff members are also required to ensure that copies of sponsor-submitted IDs include a legible photo, birth certificate or other legal documents. However, the OIG found that 35% of the cases included ID images that were dark, light, blurry or grainy without visible holograms or watermarks, indicating they may have been counterfeit.

Additionally, the OIG found that in 22% of the cases ORR staff did not conduct timely safety and well-being calls for placed children within the recommended 37-day period.

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Recommendations offered

The OIG made several recommendations to improve the process of safely releasing children to sponsors, including:

Implementation of additional safeguards to ensure that all safety checks are conducted and documented, as required, before approving the release of a child to their sponsor.
Development of a reference guide to help case managers better evaluate the identity of sponsors.
Additional steps to ensure that mandatory home studies are conducted when required.
Development of an effective monitoring mechanism to identify children who don’t receive timely follow-up calls after their release to sponsors.

The Administration for Children and Families has concurred with the OIG recommendations.

In a statement, HHS spokesperson Jeff Nesbit said that over the past three years ORR has “increased sponsor vetting, and increased coordination between HHS and Department of Labor to aggressively protect against any abuse.”

“These changes simultaneously prioritize child welfare and safety while minimizing the time children spend in congregate care settings — in line with child welfare best practices and ORR’s legal requirements to release children without undue delay.”

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