Asylum seeking children play at a makeshift camp near the U.S. and Mexican border crossing in Tijuana, Mexico. (Photographer: Luis Antonio Rojas/Bloomberg)

Thousands More Migrant Children Separated, HHS Watchdog Finds

(Bloomberg) -- The Trump administration separated thousands more migrant children from their parents than previously acknowledged after they illegally crossed into the U.S., according to a report released Thursday by the health department’s official watchdog.

Administration officials estimate that “thousands of separated children” entered into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services in 2017 and into early 2018 even before President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” border policy took effect, according to the department’s inspector general.

The separated children not previously disclosed were released before a federal judge in San Diego ordered the administration to reunify all separated families in June. The ACLU, which represented the plaintiffs in that case, said that Thursday’s report “reaffirms that the government never had a clear picture of how many children it ripped from their parents” and said “we will be back in court over this latest revelation.”

The health department “was unable to provide a more precise estimate or specific information about these children’s placements” because “the tracking systems in use at that time were informal and designed for operational purposes rather than retrospective reporting,” the inspector general said.

Other government investigations have previously noted HHS had no centralized system to track children and parents who were separated by the government.

Staff at HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement began in the summer of 2017 to notice a “significant increase and proportion of separated children” among the population of unaccompanied minors they served, according to the investigators. There were some separations at the end of the Obama administration, in late 2016, when ORR staff informally estimated that about 0.3 percent of children they received were separated from their families. By August 2017, they accounted for 3.6 percent of all the office’s intakes.

In a November 2017 email reviewed by investigators, an ORR official wrote that the children were often “very young” and required placement in specially licensed facilities but that there are sometimes “shortfalls of available beds.”

The Administration for Children and Families, which houses ORR, “is pleased that OIG’s report identifies no evidence whatsoever suggesting that ORR lost track of children in its care,” HHS said in a statement responding to the report, adding that its current “processes for newly separated children are effective and continuing to improve.”

“Our focus at HHS is always on the safety and best interest of each child. These are vulnerable children in difficult circumstances, and HHS treats its responsibility for each child with the utmost care,” the department added.

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