In 2014, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services unknowingly allowed eight Guatemalan teens to be released into the care of human traffickers, leading the young people to a life of forced labor on an Ohio egg farm.
Now in 2018, HHS still has not implemented new protocol that would greatly reduce the risk of undocumented children winding up in similar situations – despite promising Congress two years ago that such changes would be made.
In fact, just last year the department lost track of nearly 1,500 children, with no way of knowing how many fell victim to human trafficking.
The agency’s top official was brought before the Senate again this year to address continued shortcomings – issues that warrant even greater scrutiny in light of the Trump administration’s recent announcement that more unaccompanied children are likely to enter the system.
After unaccompanied minors arrive in the United States, often to reunite with family members or to flee violence or poverty in their home countries, they are typically transferred from border patrol or customs officers to the custody of HHS, which often reunites the minors with a relative or another sponsor. The department is supposed to place check-in phone calls 30 days after a minor’s placement, but during the hearing, [Steven Wagner, the acting assistant secretary of the agency’s Administration for Children and Families] acknowledged gaps in that system.
Between October and December 2017, he said, the agency was unable to locate almost 1,500 out of the 7,635 minors that it attempted to reach — or about 19 percent. Over two dozen had run away, according to Wagner, who said the agency did not have the capacity to track them down.
Back in 2016, members of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations grilled agency officials as to why they were unable to track children after placing them with sponsors, an issue that became more urgent following a scathing report from the committee showcasing the ten children who were sent to work on an egg farm in Ohio two years prior.
“It’s just a system that has so many gaps, so many opportunities for these children to fall between the cracks, that we just don’t know what’s going on — how much trafficking or abuse or simply immigration law violations are occurring,” said the committee’s Republican chairman, Sen. Rob Portman.
In 2014, at least 10 trafficking victims, including eight minors, were discovered during a raid by federal and local law enforcement in Portman’s home state of Ohio. As FRONTLINE examined in the recent documentary Trafficked in America, HHS had released several minors to the traffickers. The committee said the case was due to policies and procedures that were “inadequate to protect the children in the agency’s care.”
Speaking with Frontline for the documentary, Portman said HHS cannot continue shirking its responsibility when it comes to undocumented children:
“We’ve got these kids,” he said. “They’re here. They’re living on our soil. And for us to just, you know, assume someone else is going to take care of them and throw them to the wolves, which is what HHS was doing, is flat-out wrong. I don’t care what you think about immigration policy, it’s wrong.”