WASHINGTON – The Department of Health and Human Services suffers from serious systemic failures in protecting “unaccompanied alien children” from human trafficking, a Senate investigation says.
“It’s intolerable that human trafficking, really modern day slavery, could occur in this country in the 21st century,” Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs’ Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, said at a hearing Thursday.
The report comes after a six-month bipartisan investigation into HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement alleged placement of immigrant children into a ring of human traffickers in Marion, Ohio in 2014. The kids were forced to work on egg farms for 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week.
In the last quarter of 2015, more than 17,000 unaccompanied children were stopped at southwest border between the United States and Mexico. Not all kids halted are brought to shelters and placed in sponsor homes by HHS. But the department has often failed to find safe homes for those who are and risks placing them in trafficking rings.
Specifically, the subcommittee said HHS has failed to conduct adequate background checks and home studies, not properly vetted sponsors or members of a placement home. The report found the department also does assure the safety of the kids once a sponsor is found, and it lacks regularized, transparent procedures.
Testifying before the subcommittee, Rob Carey, head of the HHS office of refugee resettlement, and Acting Assistant HHS Secretary Mark Greenberg, had little to say. Carey chose not to give an opening statement.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said, “This is the definition of non-cooperative.”
“If you guys think it’s not your fault,” Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., lead Democrat on the subcommittee, told the government witnesses, “if you think it’s not your responsibility, I think you’re wrong. I think you’re dead wrong.”
After reviewing 65 cases involving trafficking, the panel could not say how many cases of child trafficking HHS has overseen because the agency does not follow child placements or keep procedures constant. Current policies run a high risk of dangerous sponsors.
“I find the situation in front of us today unacceptable, and I am disgusted and angry,” McCaskill said. “This is not just the failure of a moral obligation. It is the failure of a legal obligation as well.”
The panel said the issue of human trafficking in the United States goes beyond partisan divisions.
“No matter how you feel about the border,” McCaskill said, “…no matter how you feel about immigration, the bottom line is that the United States of America should be an example to the world on how to take care of those children.”