In an obscene demonstration of wide-scale negligence, the Department of Health and Human Services has been found to have accidentally placed a group of immigrant children in a Marion, Ohio human trafficking ring in 2014.
According to the New York Times, the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs opened an inquiry into the methods used to process minors who arrive at the border without a guardian, cases of which have surged in recent years in response to increasingly violent conditions in Central America.
The committee’s report, released on Thursday, found that HHS was not conducting background checks on caregivers or home visits; in the case of the Marion, OH trafficking ring, at least six children from Guatemala, ages 14 and up, were taken from federal custody and placed in forced labor conditions on an egg farm. According to the Washington Post, which has an in-depth report on the trafficking ring, they worked nearly 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, for as little as $2 a day.
Via the New York Times:
In addition to the Marion cases, the investigation found evidence that 13 other children had been trafficked after officials handed them over to adults who were supposed to care for them during their immigration proceedings. An additional 15 cases exhibited some signs of trafficking.
The report also said that it was unclear how many of the approximately 90,000 children the agency had placed in the past two years fell prey to traffickers, including sex traffickers, because it does not keep track of such cases.
Overwhelmed by the influx of unaccompanied minors that began in the fall of 2013, the Department of Health and Human Services reportedly loosened their requirements for sponsors, at times not bothering to look into whether those claiming to be family members actually were.
From the Washington Post prior to the Senate report’s release:
Andrea Helling, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the Office of Refugee Resettlement, said the inspector general is investigating the whistleblower allegations. She acknowledged that the agency briefly relaxed identity requirements for family members collecting children at the height of the surge in May 2014 to help place children more quickly.
Since then, she said, the agency has strengthened its protection efforts by reinstituting a fingerprint requirement for many people who claim children from federally funded shelters, expanding a hotline to report abuse, and requiring caseworkers to call and check up on children within 30 days of their release.
According to PBS, the Senate hearing was something of a shitshow, with lawmakers across the aisle tearing their hair out over the incompetence and lack of responsibility displayed by officials being questioned. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo) said she was “disgusted and angry” by the results of the investigation, while Sen. John McCain actually left the hearing after calling witnesses “the definition of non-cooperative.” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), chairman of the subcommittee, said the HHS placement program has “serious, systemic defects.”
“It’s discouraging that they won’t even acknowledge the fact that they blew it,” Portman added (via PBS). “They let these kids go be trafficked in horrible conditions and they won’t even say that if they had put in some basic common sense procedures they could have helped avoid this.”
Mark Greenberg, the agency’s acting assistant secretary of the Administration for Children and Families, told the Times: “We are mindful of our responsibilities to these children and are continually looking for ways to strengthen our safeguards.”
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Two girls watch a soccer game in a holding area at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center in June 2014; image via Associated Press.