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.

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Thousands nationwide protest family separations at U.S.-Mexico border
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Thousands nationwide protest family separations at U.S.-Mexico border
Demonstrators carrying signs, including one reading "Save America", march during the "Families Belong Together" rally in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., June 30, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Demonstrators carrying signs reading "Abolish ICE" and "I Really Do Care", referencing the coat recently worn by First Lady Melania Trump, march during the "Families Belong Together" rally in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., June 30, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Demonstrators gather on the Boston Common during the "Families Belong Together" rally in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., June 30, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks during the "Families Belong Together" rally in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., June 30, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks during the "Families Belong Together" rally in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., June 30, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 30: People take part during the nationwide 'Families Belong Together' march as they walk by the Brooklyn Bridge on June 30, 2018 in New York City. As thousands of migrant children remain separated from family, rallies are planned across the U.S. calling for them be reunited. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 30: People take part during the nationwide 'Families Belong Together' march as they walk by the Brooklyn Bridge on June 30, 2018 in New York City. As thousands of migrant children remain separated from family, rallies are planned across the U.S. calling for them be reunited. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 30: People take part during the nationwide 'Families Belong Together' march as they walk by the Brooklyn Bridge on June 30, 2018 in New York City. As thousands of migrant children remain separated from family, rallies are planned across the U.S. calling for them be reunited. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 30: People take part during the nationwide 'Families Belong Together' march as they walk by the Brooklyn Bridge on June 30, 2018 in New York City. As thousands of migrant children remain separated from family, rallies are planned across the U.S. calling for them be reunited. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 30: People take part during the nationwide 'Families Belong Together' march as they walk by the Brooklyn Bridge on June 30, 2018 in New York City. As thousands of migrant children remain separated from family, rallies are planned across the U.S. calling for them be reunited. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 30: People take part during the nationwide 'Families Belong Together' march as they walk by the Brooklyn Bridge on June 30, 2018 in New York City. As thousands of migrant children remain separated from family, rallies are planned across the U.S. calling for them be reunited. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 30: Thousands of people march in support of families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border on June 30, 2018 in New York, New York. Across the country marches under the banner 'Families Belong Together' are being held to demand that the Trump administration reunite thousands of immigrant children who have been separated from their families after crossing into the United States. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 30: Thousands of people march in support of families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border on June 30, 2018 in New York, New York. Across the country marches under the banner 'Families Belong Together' are being held to demand that the Trump administration reunite thousands of immigrant children who have been separated from their families after crossing into the United States. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 30: Thousands of people march in support of families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border on June 30, 2018 in New York, New York. Across the country marches under the banner 'Families Belong Together' are being held to demand that the Trump administration reunite thousands of immigrant children who have been separated from their families after crossing into the United States. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 30: People take part during the nationwide 'Families Belong Together' march as they walk by the Brooklyn Bridge on June 30, 2018 in New York City. As thousands of migrant children remain separated from family, rallies are planned across the U.S. calling for them be reunited. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 30: Thousands of people march in support of families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border on June 30, 2018 in New York, New York. Across the country marches under the banner 'Families Belong Together' are being held to demand that the Trump administration reunite thousands of immigrant children who have been separated from their families after crossing into the United States. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 30: Thousands of people march in support of families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border on June 30, 2018 in New York, New York. Across the country marches under the banner 'Families Belong Together' are being held to demand that the Trump administration reunite thousands of immigrant children who have been separated from their families after crossing into the United States. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 30: Thousands of people march in support of families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border on June 30, 2018 in New York, New York. Across the country marches under the banner 'Families Belong Together' are being held to demand that the Trump administration reunite thousands of immigrant children who have been separated from their families after crossing into the United States. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 30: Thousands of people march in support of families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border on June 30, 2018 in New York, New York. Across the country marches under the banner 'Families Belong Together' are being held to demand that the Trump administration reunite thousands of immigrant children who have been separated from their families after crossing into the United States. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 30: Thousands of people march in support of families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border on June 30, 2018 in New York, New York. Across the country marches under the banner 'Families Belong Together' are being held to demand that the Trump administration reunite thousands of immigrant children who have been separated from their families after crossing into the United States. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 30: Thousands of people march in support of families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border on June 30, 2018 in New York, New York. Across the country marches under the banner 'Families Belong Together' are being held to demand that the Trump administration reunite thousands of immigrant children who have been separated from their families after crossing into the United States. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 30: Thousands of people march in support of families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border on June 30, 2018 in New York, New York. Across the country marches under the banner 'Families Belong Together' are being held to demand that the Trump administration reunite thousands of immigrant children who have been separated from their families after crossing into the United States. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 30: Thousands of people march in support of families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border on June 30, 2018 in New York, New York. Across the country marches under the banner 'Families Belong Together' are being held to demand that the Trump administration reunite thousands of immigrant children who have been separated from their families after crossing into the United States. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 30: (EDITORS NOTE: Image contains profanity.) A Demonstrator participates in the Families Belong Together - Freedom For Immigrants March at Los Angeles City Hall on June 30, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Sarah Morris/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 30: Demonstrators participates in the Families Belong Together - Freedom For Immigrants March at Los Angeles City Hall on June 30, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Sarah Morris/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 30: Demonstrators participates in the Families Belong Together - Freedom For Immigrants March at Los Angeles City Hall on June 30, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Sarah Morris/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 30: Demonstrators participates in the Families Belong Together - Freedom For Immigrants March at Los Angeles City Hall on June 30, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Sarah Morris/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 30: A demonstrator participates in the Families Belong Together - Freedom For Immigrants March at Los Angeles City Hall on June 30, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Sarah Morris/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 30: A demonstrator participates in the Families Belong Together - Freedom For Immigrants March at Los Angeles City Hall on June 30, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Sarah Morris/Getty Images)
People hold placards during a 'Familes Belong Together' march and rally in Los Angeles, California on June 30, 2018 where a thousands turned out to decry the Trump administration's detention of families policy at the US Mexico border. - Thousands of demonstrators, baking in the heat and opposed to the US immigration policy, marched across the country Saturday, June 30, 2018 to protest the separation of families under President Donald Trump's hardline agenda. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP) (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
People hold placards during a 'Familes Belong Together' march and rally in Los Angeles, California on June 30, 2018 where a thousands turned out to decry the Trump administration's detention of families policy at the US Mexico border. - Thousands of demonstrators, baking in the heat and opposed to the US immigration policy, marched across the country Saturday, June 30, 2018 to protest the separation of families under President Donald Trump's hardline agenda. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP) (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Demonstrators march against the separation of immigrant families, on June 30, 2018 in New York. - Demonstrations are being held across the US Saturday against President Donald Trump's hardline immigration policy. (Photo by EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ / AFP) (Photo credit should read EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Anarchist elements move into the streets after the rally ends in order to draw more attention to the criminalization and dehumanization of immigrant communities during protests in Philadelphia, Pa on June 30, 2018. (Photo by Cory Clark/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON,DC-JUNE30: Lauren Unterberger, 16, from Wilmington, DE, protests against family separation in Lafayette Square in Washington, DC, June 30, 2018. (Photo by Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Anarchist elements move into the streets after the rally ends in order to draw more attention to the criminalization and dehumanization of immigrant communities during protests in Philadelphia, Pa on June 30, 2018. (Photo by Cory Clark/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON,DC-JUNE30: Sufia Bassett, 32, from Bethlehem, PA, originally from Equador, protests against family separation in Lafayette Square in Washington, DC, June 30, 2018. (Photo by Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Anarchist elements move into the streets after the rally ends in order to draw more attention to the criminalization and dehumanization of immigrant communities during protests in Philadelphia, Pa on June 30, 2018. (Photo by Cory Clark/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Anarchist elements move into the streets after the rally ends in order to draw more attention to the criminalization and dehumanization of immigrant communities during protests in Philadelphia, Pa on June 30, 2018. (Photo by Cory Clark/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Anarchist elements move into the streets after the rally ends in order to draw more attention to the criminalization and dehumanization of immigrant communities during protests in Philadelphia, Pa on June 30, 2018. (Photo by Cory Clark/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Anarchist elements move into the streets after the rally ends in order to draw more attention to the criminalization and dehumanization of immigrant communities during protests in Philadelphia, Pa on June 30, 2018. (Photo by Cory Clark/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Anarchist elements move into the streets after the rally ends in order to draw more attention to the criminalization and dehumanization of immigrant communities during protests in Philadelphia, Pa on June 30, 2018. (Photo by Cory Clark/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Anarchist elements move into the streets after the rally ends in order to draw more attention to the criminalization and dehumanization of immigrant communities during protests in Philadelphia, Pa on June 30, 2018. (Photo by Cory Clark/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Anarchist elements move into the streets after the rally ends in order to draw more attention to the criminalization and dehumanization of immigrant communities during protests in Philadelphia, Pa on June 30, 2018. (Photo by Cory Clark/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Anarchist elements move into the streets after the rally ends in order to draw more attention to the criminalization and dehumanization of immigrant communities during protests in Philadelphia, Pa on June 30, 2018. (Photo by Cory Clark/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Anarchist elements move into the streets after the rally ends in order to draw more attention to the criminalization and dehumanization of immigrant communities during protests in Philadelphia, Pa on June 30, 2018. (Photo by Cory Clark/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON,DC-JUNE30: Lara Carlson, 50, from Maine, protests against family separation in Lafayette Square in Washington, DC, June 30, 2018. (Photo by Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON,DC-JUNE30: Lauren Unterberger, 16, from Wilmington, DE, protests against family separation in Lafayette Square in Washington, DC, June 30, 2018. (Photo by Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
ANAHEIM, CA - JUNE 30: Protesters stand outside the James A. Musick Facility, a detention center that houses unauthorized immigrants, to protest President Trump's immigration policies and demand children be reunited with their families in Irvine on Saturday, June 30, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register via Getty Images)
ANAHEIM, CA - JUNE 30: Protesters stand outside the James A. Musick Facility, a detention center that houses unauthorized immigrants, to protest President Trump's immigration policies and demand children be reunited with their families in Irvine on Saturday, June 30, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register via Getty Images)
ANAHEIM, CA - JUNE 30: Thousands of people march from Portola High School in Irvine to the James A. Musick Facility, a detention center that houses unauthorized immigrants, to protest President Trump's immigration policies and demand children be reunited with their families on Saturday, June 30, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register via Getty Images)
ANAHEIM, CA - JUNE 30: Marisa Esparza, 19, of Orange, walks with her sign outside the James A. Musick Facility, a detention center that houses unauthorized immigrants, to protest President Trump's immigration policies and demand children be reunited with their families in Irvine on Saturday, June 30, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register via Getty Images)
ANAHEIM, CA - JUNE 30: Thousands of people march down Irvine Blvd. from Portola High School in Irvine to the James A. Musick Facility, a detention center that houses unauthorized immigrants, to protest President Trump's immigration policies and demand children be reunited with their families on Saturday, June 30, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register via Getty Images)
ANAHEIM, CA - JUNE 30: Thousands of people march from Portola High School in Irvine to the James A. Musick Facility, a detention center that houses unauthorized immigrants, to protest President Trump's immigration policies and demand children be reunited with their families on Saturday, June 30, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register via Getty Images)
ANAHEIM, CA - JUNE 30: Thousands of people march from Portola High School in Irvine to the James A. Musick Facility, a detention center that houses unauthorized immigrants, to protest President Trump's immigration policies and demand children be reunited with their families on Saturday, June 30, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register via Getty Images)
ANAHEIM, CA - JUNE 30: People line the stadium at Portola High School during a rally to protest President Trump's immigration policies and demand children be reunited with their families, in Irvine on Saturday, June 30, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register via Getty Images)
ANAHEIM, CA - JUNE 30: Thousands of people march from Portola High School in Irvine to the James A. Musick Facility, a detention center that houses unauthorized immigrants, to protest President Trump's immigration policies and demand children be reunited with their families on Saturday, June 30, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register via Getty Images)
ANAHEIM, CA - JUNE 30: U.S. Representative Lou Correa applauds holocaust survivor Margaret Houffelaar, 91, of Laguna Woods, during a rally at Portola High School Saturday to protest President Trump's immigration policies and demand children be reunited with their families in Irvine on Saturday, June 30, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register via Getty Images)
One-year-old Yara Pejan sits by a sign that refers to Trump's immigration policy separating children from their parents, during a rally in Laguna Beach on Saturday, June 30, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer/Orange County Register via Getty Images)
ANAHEIM, CA - JUNE 30: People line the stadium at Portola High School during a rally to protest President Trump's immigration policies and demand children be reunited with their families, in Irvine on Saturday, June 30, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 30: A pro-Trump counter demonstrator holds a sign toward protesters decrying Trump administration immigration and refugee policies on June 30, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. Although President Trump was forced to reverse his policy of removing all children from their immigrant or asylum-seeking parents, little clarity appears to be seen as to how agencies can fulfill a court order to reunite thousands of children and parents detained far apart by multiple agencies. Yesterday, the Justice Department filed papers in a Los Angeles federal court to have families arrested for illegal border crossings incarcerated together indefinitely. The rally is one of more than 700 such protests being held throughout the nation. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
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“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.

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