Published — March 6, 2020

Government watchdog confirms: Feds were warned border separations would harm kids

Mothers and their children stand in line at South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, in 2018. (Charles Reed/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via AP)

Inspector General report supports Public Integrity and NPR investigation that found the Trump administration failed to coordinate the release of immigrant children.


Workers at shelters for migrant children were warning that family separations would hurt children before the Trump administration ramped up the policy in the spring of 2018, according to a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) internal investigation released Thursday.

Once the administration began separations on a mass scale in April 2018 workers at shelters where immigrants were held were overwhelmed and often unable to adequately care for children or communicate with their parents, the report by the HHS Office of the Inspector General found. The separations were the result of a so-called Zero Tolerance policy mandating prosecution of all border crossers. The policy required separating children so parents could be put into detention pending trials.

A caregiver in San Benito, Texas, cradles a migrant toddler at a facility for babies, children and teens, in 2019. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

The findings echo multiple reports posted last year by the Center for Public Integrity. Public Integrity published internal documents written by shelter workers that said they were concerned about the children’s emotional and physical condition. Case workers described children weeping, some so upset they refused to speak.

Blind and deaf minors languished in shelters as officials with HHS and the Department of Homeland Security failed to coordinate the release of children or communicate with parents or other family members, a Public Integrity and NPR investigation also found.

The HHS inspector general found that “HHS was not responsible for separating families, but HHS’s inadequate communication, management, and planning made the situation worse for many separated children.”

The Trump administration ended Zero Tolerance in June 2018 after a court order and public outcry. The inspector general reported individual family separations continued. Investigators reviewed conditions at shelters, and in September 2019 found that “facilities struggled to address the mental health needs of children who had experienced intense trauma, including separated children, and had difficulty accessing specialized treatment for children who needed it.”

“Facilities struggled to address the mental health needs of children who had experienced intense trauma.”

Inspector General, Department of Health and Human Services

The inspector general also found that in early 2018 staff with HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement “received information” suggesting the administration might begin a policy “resulting larger-scale family separation.” The office’s staff, who supervise shelters, were worried that the system “lacked the bed capacity to accommodate a large increase in separated children and were also concerned about the trauma such a policy would inflict on children.”

Public Integrity and NPR’s investigation last year found that Office of Refugee Resettlement staff repeatedly contacted Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties with concerns about family separations in late 2017 and early 2018.

The staff filed the majority of nearly 850 complaints related to family separations, many before the Trump administration officially announced  its Zero Tolerance policy.

Read more in Inequality, Opportunity and Poverty

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