Watchdog: Data on children separated at border may be flawed

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration's effort to track children separated from their families at the border is plagued by communication problems that raise questions about the accuracy of the data, a watchdog reported Thursday.

The administration created the tracking system following its “zero tolerance” policy in 2018 where more than 2,500 children were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, though the watchdog has estimated that figure could be much higher.

Immigration officials have continued to separate some children from their parents at the border for certain reasons including a parent's suspected criminal history, and have said the tracking system will help avoid some of the chaos, confusion and trauma suffered by separated children. According to court figures at least 955 children were separated between June 2018 and July 2019.

But that tracking system is flawed, in part because details about whether separation from parents occurred are not automatically transmitted from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which manages the border, to Health and Human Services, which deals with migrant children, the watchdog reported.

In some cases, border officers can trigger an indicator, but are not typically doing so, the watchdog reported. Health and Human Services officials maintain a spreadsheet of separated children, but it still relies on manual entry, and that is "inherently vulnerable to error, raising questions about the accuracy of current data on separated children,” the watchdog reported.

The report also found that Health and Human Services only discovered the 2018 separations were occurring through media reports - in part because there was no communication between agencies. The result was a chaos, with some children languishing in detention well beyond legal limits, others inconsolable in the hands of care providers who had no answers on when parents were returning. Some children were kept waiting in vans for hours in parking lots amid delays in reunification.

“Not knowing what happened to their parents haunted the children," one care provider told investigators, according to the report. "We couldn’t tell them whether they would ultimately be reunited. It was challenging. We weren’t notified initially about how to connect parents with their kids. The kids had lots of questions, but we had no answers for them.”

Health and Human Services officials said in a letter to the watchdog that it had the best interest of children at heart and was committed to improving, but that family separation is a thorny subject involving the Justice Department, Homeland Security and HHS, and there isn't a simple fix for some issues.

The 2018 separations occurred in part because some migrant parents were charged criminally with illegal entry and children can't be put in jail. Curbing immigration is Trump's signature policy, and his administration was managing a growing crush of migrants moving north to the border; the arrests were an effort in part to dissuade migrants from making the dangerous trek north.

Administration officials initially defended the practice but abandoned it after global outcry from world leaders, religious groups and humanitarian organizations that it was inhumane. A federal court order generally bars further separations unless there are questions about criminal history or the health and safety of the child. Attorneys in the case have argued there are too many unnecessary separations.

The report by the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services was compiled from interviews with and written responses from senior Health officials, interviews with staff at 45 care providers, case reviews from separated children and more than 5,000 documents. It is one of several the inspector general's office has completed on family separations. In September, it found that the children separated, many already distressed in their home countries or by their journey, showed more fear, feelings of abandonment and post-traumatic stress symptoms than children who were not separated.

Children who are taken from their parents and placed into the care of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for unaccompanied migrant children. They are generally placed into facilities run by care providers until a suitable sponsor can be found. In most cases, the sponsors are parents. During 2018, children were held longer in immigration detention and were also kept longer at facilities because of vast delays in the system.

But when the separations began in 2018, there was no formalized system to track children and their parents across the five government agencies in order reunify them. The report found that inadequate communication, management and planning at Health and Human Services made the situation even worse for many separated children. And in some cases, the officials were not prioritizing the needs of children.

At the time, Health and Human Services officials said they had no notice the separations would occur as a result of the zero tolerance policy pushed by then Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

But staff warned of a growing increase in the number of separated children as early as 2017, the report found. Separations occurred under previous administrations, but it was rare.

The watchdog says high-ranking officers disregarded “specific, repeated” warnings from staff that the policy would be implemented. And there was no evidence that senior officials “took action to protect children's interests,” the report found.

Ann Maxwell, the assistant inspector general, said in a press call communication improvements were necessary.

“Clear lines of communications are vital to HHS’ ability to adapt and response to any new developments in immigration policy or practice that could impact children in the future," she said.

Some key health officials were not convinced that immigration officials would do large-scale separations, and were reluctant to intervene in immigration law enforcement policies, the report found. And the leadership didn't understand the magnitude of the problem, the report found.

In a letter to the inspector general, HHS officials quibbled over the language in the report that there had been a “family separation policy,” instead noting the separations were the result of other policies meant to manage criminal cases.

“HHS does not have a direct role in shaping upstream immigration enforcement policy,” because the agency “does not have any statutory authority over immigration enforcement policy or implementation,” wrote Lynn Johnson, the Assistant Secretary for the Administration for Children and Families.

She said the context for evaluating the agency in this realm should be done through that prism. The agency concurred with much of the recommendations by the inspector general, but noted there could be problems in solving inter-agency issues without getting the other agencies on board.