The Department of Homeland Security may have separated “thousands” more children from their families than previously reported, according to a new report conducted by the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services. “More children” children were separated “over a longer period of time” than previously believed, Ann Maxwell, Assistant Inspector General for Evaluation and Inspections, said Thursday. “How many more children were separated is unknown.”
According to the report, released Thursday, separations began as a result of a Trump administration policy issued in April 2017, an entire year before the well-publicized zero tolerance policy was rolled out in April 2018.
Acting under a court order, HHS was able to identify 2,737 children who were separated from their parents, but, the report says, that number does not include children who were separated before the “zero tolerance” policy took effect. Exactly how many children were separated remains unknown, Maxwell said, because HHS faced “significant challenges in identifying separated children.”
The revised number is based on the observations of ORR officials and staff, who, the report states, began keeping informal track of family separations in 2016 under President Obama. They saw a noticeable uptick in separations in the summer of 2017.
“Although this tracking was not comprehensive, it provided adequate information to alert ORR intake staff to significant trends,” the report states. “ORR officials noted that, according to this tracking, the proportion of separated children rose from approximately 0.3 percent of all UAC intakes in late 2016 to 3.6 percent by August 2017.”
The report also cites an email from at least one ORR official raising concerns in November 2017 that separated children were younger than the unaccompanied minors the agency was accustomed to providing service for — a reality that presented new challenges. “The numbers of these very young UAC resulting from separations has on some dates resulted in shortfalls of available beds,” the email said.
Between July and November of 2017, the report says, the El Paso sector of CBP, acting under the new Trump administration guidance, separated at least 281 individuals from their families.
The report says the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which took custody of the children after they were separated from their parents, still doesn’t have systems in place to track them. “It is not yet clear whether recent changes to ORR’s systems and processes are sufficient to ensure consistent and accurate data about separated children, and the lack of detail in information received from DHS continues to pose challenges.”
The report does not address which members of the administration were aware of the separations or the failures to track children. “We did not, in this report, address who knew what, when,” Maxwell said on a press call Thursday. But, she added, this report was “the first of many reports that we anticipate on this topic.”
Scott Lloyd, the Trump appointee in charge of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, was removed from his post in November after reports that he badly bungled the tracking of children separated from their families. Lloyd, who also came under fire for his insistence on micromanaging the reproductive choices of teen girls in ORR custody, was transferred to HHS’ Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives, where he does outreach to community-based and faith-based partners.