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Key officials raised alarm about care of migrant children in government custody, new memo reveals

<i>Dario Lopez-Mills/Pool/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>Key officials raised alarm about care of migrant children in government custody
POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Dario Lopez-Mills/Pool/AFP/Getty Images
Key officials raised alarm about care of migrant children in government custody

By Priscilla Alvarez, CNN

As the Biden administration scrambled to deal with thousands of migrant children at the US-Mexico border this spring, officials were raising concerns that they were ditching “even the most basic safety procedures” and setting up facilities “run like disaster camps.”

An internal document obtained by CNN sheds light on a federal agency under stress and frustrated over the handling of unaccompanied minors.

“As child welfare professionals with combined decades of experience working with (unaccompanied children), we, the (Office of Refugee Resettlement) field staff supervisors, have become growingly alarmed at the erosion of child-welfare centered approaches within the UC program,” the memo, dated July 23, reads.

Officials also cited a rush to release minors, potentially putting them at risk, pressure to put up temporary facilities that lacked basic services, saying those facilities were “run like disaster camps” and said staff became “first-hand witnesses of the deterioration of the mental and behavioral health” of children who stayed at the emergency sites.

By July, when officials sent the memo to leadership, more than 79,000 unaccompanied migrant children had crossed the US-Mexico border in the year, surpassing previous records and overwhelming border facilities. Emergency intake sites sprung up across the country to make up for limited shelter capacity, one of which drew so much concern that an official likened a site to Border Patrol stations, akin to jail-like facilities.

Amid the political backlash over the influx of minors, pressure to address the issue trickled down from the White House to agency staff, according to multiple officials, fueling frustrations and raising alarm about the administration’s handling of unaccompanied minors.

“The Biden Administration takes our responsibility to care for and protect unaccompanied children in our custody seriously. We abide by the standards of care applicable to children in shelter settings,” a White House spokesperson said in a statement this week. “And we adhere to the requirements that obligate us to place an unaccompanied migrant child in the best setting for the child’s health and well-being while the child awaits action on their claim for asylum.”

Tensions appeared to reach a tipping point this fall when a senior career official, Jallyn Sualog, who served at the Office of Refugee Resettlement — the federal agency charged with the care of migrant children — for more than decade and had previously served as acting director left on detail, according to an official familiar with the move who added staff felt faulted and disempowered.

The limited resources to accommodate migrant children earlier this year was in part due to the coronavirus pandemic and what officials said at the time was lack of preparedness by the Trump administration. At the onset of the pandemic, the Trump administration invoked a public health order that allowed border authorities to turn away migrants, including children, at the US-Mexico border. Fewer children were allowed into the US as a result. As that happened, shelters set up measures to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, limiting capacity.

Shelters designed to care for unaccompanied children were therefore ill-prepared when there was a dramatic spike of minors at the US-Mexico border. The Biden administration had exempted unaccompanied children from the Trump-era public health order, returning to admitting minors. While the administration sought to build up capacity, minors languished in Border Patrol facilities, which are not intended to care for children.

Ten federal field specialist supervisors, who serve as regional liaisons to care providers and stakeholders, and a case management unit supervisor signed a July memo to leadership acknowledging the “unprecedented number” of arrivals and expressing their concerns over the handling of minors in care.

“We see the curtailing of ORR’s child-welfare centered practices, developed over the past two decades specifically for UC, as dangerous on many levels. Therefore, we feel compelled to act by expressing this concern to you, our leadership,” the memo read.

At the time of the memo, around 14,100 had been in ORR care, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

To keep up with the number of children coming into custody, the Biden administration placed an emphasis on the release of children to sponsors, like a parent or guardian, in the United States. Specifically, ORR modified policy guidance for children with a parent or guardian in the US to expedite their release.

The federal field specialist supervisors took issue with the guidance, arguing that it “eliminated even the most basic safety procedures,” according to the memo, like cutting the third-party review that had been in place as an additional precaution and the quality of the child/parent relationship.

The guidance referenced in the memo has some checks in place, including checking to make sure there are no red flags. But one source with knowledge of the unaccompanied children program said some children have been released within a week, leaving little time to identify any problematic information that might arise.

“Framing the current influx situation as a failure to maximize throughput (viz. not releasing children fast enough to sponsors), staff involved in assessing releases for UC can feel forced to make dangerous decisions regarding placement in favor of demonstrating that they are quickly releasing UC to sponsors,” the memo read.

“The current climate in ORR that has been created by leadership has been one that rewards individuals for making quick releases, and not one that rewards individuals for preventing unsafe releases,” it continued.

Another source with knowledge of the unaccompanied children program argued there are benefits to reuniting children with a parent or legal guardian at a faster pace, but in some cases, that could come with heightened risk of placing children in potentially dangerous situations.

“Whenever there’s an influx of migration at the border, our system is strained, the more pressure we receive from any administration to release kids quickly,” the source said, underscoring the importance of having trained staff working with children to identify safe sponsors.

An HHS spokesperson said personnel who work with children receive training and undergo appropriate background checks. “We make every effort to address without delay all concerns brought to our attention about child safety and welfare. Any claim of mistreatment or harm to a child is investigated and, where appropriate, reported to local authorities,” the spokesperson added.

But months later, the concerns outlined in the July memo persist, the source said.

One of those concerns stemmed from the use of emergency intake sites — a new type of facility that took the shape of emergency shelters, offering basic necessities but falling short of providing other services, like education and case management, to the hundreds of children housed at the sites.

“We established Emergency Intake Sites to address the shortage of licensed care facilities available to provide shelter and essential services to unaccompanied children. These sites are not meant to be permanent shelters for the unaccompanied children. Nevertheless, when needed our EISs provide essential and wrap-around services for the children in our custody,” the HHS spokesperson said.

Conditions at emergency intake sites varied — and regularly changed — but in some cases, the rapid pace at which sites were set up contributed to their shortcomings. Girls who stayed at a temporary shelter in Houston reported fainting spells, lack of food or inadequate food, not enough clean clothes, and bathroom restrictions that barred girls from using the restroom after 10 p.m., according to attorneys.

ORR officials also expressed concern internally about the poor conditions at the Houston facility days before the site was abruptly closed, citing lack of staff and basic necessities, like feminine products, and soiled clothing. One official likened conditions to a Border Patrol facility, which is not equipped or intended to care for children.

“There were certain EISs that were soul crushing and others I felt I didn’t want kids to go. For me, that was the range,” said Leecia Welch, lead counsel at Children’s Rights and part of the Flores counsel that monitors conditions.

“Yes, there were places where children didn’t describe being miserable and wanting to harm themselves, but they certainly weren’t places that you would want kids,” Welch, whose visited a range of shelters over the years, told CNN.

Only three of the more than a dozen emergency intake sites that sprung up remain open, according to HHS.

Among the largest of the intake sites is a facility at Fort Bliss that has a potential capacity of up to 10,000 beds. Fort Bliss — which remains open — initially came under heavy scrutiny for subpar conditions and the prolonged periods of time children were staying at the facility. It was also the subject of whistleblower complaints and an HHS inspector general review.

Some officials at HHS have wanted to close Fort Bliss, which has improved since it was first opened, but the White House has pushed back to stay prepared for another potential influx of minors, according to an administration official. In recent days, the site has started to intake more children after the population dropped, according to multiple sources.

While the number of minors arriving to the US-Mexico border without a parent or guardian has declined in recent months, arrivals remain high. Hundreds of children are still coming into US Customs and Border Protection custody daily and being referred to ORR for care. As of December 8, there were 13,152 minors in care, according to government data. There are around 16,500 beds available for children, an HHS spokesperson told CNN.

The influx of minors stalled plans to bolster the unaccompanied children program that falls under ORR, according to an administration official. “The volume and emergencies have had us in a defensive posture rather than reforms and a proactive agenda,” the administration official told CNN. “Capacity was dismantled when we came in and has taken much longer to rebuild than was fully appreciated. And you can’t rebuild during constant emergencies, especially without the resources needed.”

After a record year for the Office of Refugee Resettlement, an agency that is also involved with the resettlement of Afghan evacuees, Welch, who interviewed migrant minors in HHS care, expressed optimism that the administration is better equipped to manage a potential crisis in the future after lessons learned over the last several months.

HHS, meanwhile, has said it’s trying to build up availability of licensed capacity, which are permanent shelters that offer wraparound services for children, but that takes time and has been complicated in some Republican-led states as governors issue executive orders curtailing care of migrant minors.

“It’s hard to have a strategy when you’re constantly on fire,” one source said.

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