Great moments in government: HHS handed children to human traffickers

Rarely has “We’re from the government and we’re here to help” been less amusing or more outraging. In the wake of the massive rush of minors across the southern border, the Department of Health and Human Services placed many of them in homes in order to outsource their care. Thanks to a lack of vetting, though, a dozen or more ended up in modern slavery, handed over to known human traffickers. The New York Times’ Emmarie Huetteman reports on a Senate investigation that ripped HHS for its incompetence:

The Department of Health and Human Services placed more than a dozen immigrant children in the custody of human traffickers after it failed to conduct background checks of caregivers, according to a Senate report released on Thursday.

Examining how the federal agency processes minors who arrive at the border without a guardian, lawmakers said they found that it had not followed basic practices of child welfare agencies, like making home visits.

The Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations opened its inquiry after law enforcement officials uncovered a human trafficking ring in Marion, Ohio, last year. At least six children were lured to the United States from Guatemala with the promise of a better life, then were made to work on egg farms. The children, as young as 14, had been in federal custody before being entrusted to the traffickers.

And guess what? HHS doesn’t track its placements, and so it has no idea how many other children might have fallen into the hands of traffickers. The Senate found evidence of suspected cases numbering in the dozens:

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.

The Associated Press first reported on the failure at HHS and the boon for human traffickers they provided. Garance Burke noted that rule changes to reduce oversight within HHS’ program led to the grotesque outcome:

First, the government stopped fingerprinting most adults seeking to claim the children. In April 2014, the agency stopped requiring original copies of birth certificates to prove most sponsors’ identities. The next month, it decided not to complete forms that request sponsors’ personal and identifying information before sending many of the children to sponsors’ homes. Then, it eliminated FBI criminal history checks for many sponsors.

Since the rule changes, the AP has identified more than two dozen children who were placed with sponsors who subjected them to sexual abuse, labor trafficking, or severe abuse and neglect.

“This is clearly the tip of the iceberg,” said Jacqueline Bhabha, research director at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University. “We would never release domestic children to private settings with as little scrutiny.”

Advocates say it is hard to gauge the total number of children exposed to dangerous conditions among the more than 89,000 placed with sponsors since October 2013 because many of the migrants designated for follow-up were nowhere to be found when social workers tried to reach them.

HHS officials claimed that they didn’t have the funds to perform these tasks, but the Senate found that the agency didn’t use the funds they had already been allocated:

HHS claimed that it lacked the funds and authorities that a more rigorous screening process would have required. However, the investigation also found that HHS did not spend all of the money allocated to it for handling the crisis.

In other words, it’s ineptitude resulting from a lack of accountability. It’s this kind of incompetence that has plagued immigration control, visa management, and border security for decades, and why voters demand an overhaul of those functions before discussing what to do with those who have already crossed the border. Even a mass deportation at this point wouldn’t solve the problem (assuming one is remotely realistic), because the same people would flood back across the border again. It’s gotten so bad that HHS stopped checking on children it placed with total strangers, and to this day apparently has no information on how to track them.

This is more than unamusing. It’s disgusting, revolting, and shameful. And once again, it shows why no one trusts the federal government to handle responsibilities explicitly assigned to them, let alone the ones over which they arrogate jurisdiction at the expense of the states and the people.

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