WASHINGTON, D.C. – The United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) yesterday issued a report titled “Communication and Management Challenges Impeded HHS’s Response to the Zero-Tolerance Policy,” which looks at the last three years of the Trump administration's policy of separating families at the U.S. southern border.
The report documents senior HHS officials’ lack of planning for the possibility of a family separation policy, despite staff’s repeated warnings that family separations were occurring and might increase. According to the OIG, this unpreparedness left HHS unable to provide prompt and appropriate care for children separated from their families, especially once the zero-tolerance policy was at its height.
The report also confirms that no procedures or systems had been established to track separated families across HHS and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and as such, HHS struggled to both identify separated children and locate separated parents in DHS or Department of Justice (DOJ) custody. The report also documents difficulties experienced by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) facilities at every stage of the reunification process, which were exacerbated by frequently changing and poorly communicated guidance from HHS.
“The HHS OIG confirms what the Women’s Refugee Commission has documented for years based on our monitoring, and on reports we received from partners in the field,” said Leah Chavla, migrant rights and justice senior policy advisor at the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC). “The Trump administration and senior leadership at all levels in all relevant agencies created a nightmare for arriving families. Separating families is horrific enough, let alone this latest evidence that there were no plans or systems in place at the outset, during, or following the implementation of its policy for inter-agency tracking and later reunification of separated family members.”
The report calls on HHS to consider and prioritize the best interests of the child in decisions and actions affecting his or her care and custody; states that HHS should coordinate with DHS to support information sharing about separated family members; and that the relevant agencies within each department must implement better mechanisms to identify and track separated children.
“As noted within the OIG’s report itself, many of the problems that led to HHS’s lack of preparedness continue today, chief among them the lack of inter-agency coordination and communication with DHS and reliance on error-prone manual procedures and processes to identify and track separated children in HHS care,” said Chavla. “The fact that these problems persist, and moreover that several senior HHS officials did nothing to address them despite urgent repeated warnings, indicates not only a complete and utter lack of political and moral leadership, but, perhaps even worse, reveal that the infliction of harm on children – and their families – was intentional if not criminally negligent.”
Although focused on HHS, the report also highlights several aspects of the reunification process that were significantly hindered by DHS and, in some cases, DOJ. According to the report, HHS rarely received pertinent information from DHS about the separations; DHS lacked information-technology systems to reliably track families it separated leading to “widespread errors” in the data about these families; and both DHS and DOJ were frequently unresponsive to ORR staff's requests to locate and facilitate contact between separated family members. In one example, the report quotes an ORR facility program director describing efforts to locate a separated parent: “…the facility called [the DHS detention center] every day seeking the parents of an 11-year-old child. They could not reach anyone. The child cried every day.”
“The OIG's report further documents the cruelty and intentional trauma and terror this administration inflicted on thousands of parents and their children – trauma with lifelong consequences. It is up to the country, both the public and our other branches of government beyond the Executive, to ensure that these actions will not be forgotten despite the Administration’s best efforts to deny and erase the record,” said Chavla. “We must continue to hold to account those responsible for these harms, while ensuring that DHS, HHS, and all government agencies involved finally take the measures needed to stop family separations and support separated members with reunification once and for all.”