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HUD PROPOSAL COULD REDUCE PROTECTIONS AGAINST DISCRIMINATION, HOUSING ADVOCATES SAY

Fair housing policy groups say they are concerned that the Trump administration’s proposal reverts the functions of the AFFH mandate back to a time when no plans were required by HUD and jurisdictions were confused on how they should comply. During this time, few actions were taken.

Former Wells Fargo board members criticized for failure to oversee management malpractices

Both Democrats and Republicans vehemently criticized two former Wells Fargo board members Wednesday for not changing practices after repeated management failures that have led to consumer abuses and compliance breakdowns.

Congress members debate the effectiveness of social safety net programs, aim to reduce silos at Ways and Means Committee

As high numbers of children in the United States continue to be born into poverty, members of Congress agreed Wednesday they should do more to provide for poor families and help their children — but they couldn’t agree how. 

COMMUNITY RESPONSE TEAM CARES FOR D.C. HOMELESS POPULATION WITH MENTAL ILLNESSESS

The Department of Behavioral Health’s Community Response team works 24/7 to help care for The District’s homeless suffering from mental illnesses as the city has the highest rate of homelessness per capita in the country.

Culture change needed to reduce sexual harassment at NOAA, experts tell House hearing

Sexual assault and sexual harassment cases by employees are pervasive at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and major reform is needed, House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Chairman T.J. Cox said at a hearing on Thursday.

Recalling history as the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz approaches

WASHINGTON — “Over 100 years ago, my great-grandfather came to New York City fleeing anti-Semitism,” said Rep. Max Rose, D-N.Y.

The House Subcommittee on Intelligence and Counterterrorism convened last week to discuss the thereat posed by domestic anti-Semetic terrorism.

“Why is this happening?” asked Rose. “What do we do tomorrow and the next week and the next month?”

This week marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp where an estimated 1.1 million people perished. To commemorate the liberation, the Nation Archives has a display about the horrors committed at Auschwitz. 

“It’s important for us to reflect back on the causes that led to Auschwitz, as well as the consequences,” said Steve Luckert of the United States Holocaust Museum.

EDA prioritizes opportunity zone initiative in testimony to Senate committee, despite alleged tax abuses

WASHINGTON — An Economic Development Administration official told a Senate committee on Wednesday that the opportunity zone tax break is a “powerful vehicle” for bringing economic growth to distressed communities. However, Democrats were skeptical that the tax break is generating investment in communities that need it.

In his testimony to the Environment and Public Works, John Fleming, assistant secretary of commerce for the Economic Development Administration, said one of the agency’s key areas of focus is opportunity zones, which was created in 2017 as part of President Donald Trump’s tax reform law.

Designed to leverage private investment to develop distressed communities, the opportunity zone program offers tax breaks to private investors who invest in areas designated as economically distressed. Governors are given the discretion to designate the zones; developers who invest in the areas get tax breaks.

Since fiscal 2018, the EDA has invested nearly $352 million on 262 projects in or near opportunity zones across the country, Fleming said.

“These opportunity zones are areas across the country where new investment can spur economic development,” said Committee Chairman Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo.

But just last Thursday, the Treasury Department inspector general opened an investigation into potential abuses of the Trump tax break by billionaires, following reports by ProPublica and The New York Times. In October, three Democrats wrote to the inspector general requesting the probe.

The tax break has been reported to benefit billionaires with investments in areas that should not have qualified. In some cases, governors have granted the tax break to their political donors, themselves or family members, according to ProPublica.

At a Jan. 14 House Committee on Financial Services hearing, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., blasted the opportunity zone program for its lack of accountability, calling it a “straight-up capital gain tax break.”

“One of the things I’m disturbed about, unlike other tax credits and programs, is what is required by those that so-called qualify?” Tlaib said.

She asked whether investors are required to report the number of jobs and affordable housing units, and how much of the capital gained through the tax break will be reinvested back into the community.

Karen Chapple, a witness at the hearing and professor at the University of California, Berkeley, answered no to all of Tlaib’s questions.

“No accountability,” Chapple said.

Tlaib said two communities in her district have been designated as opportunity zones that do not qualify.

“They chose two census tracts which are the wealthiest in my district, wealthiest in the city of Detroit for opportunity zones for these tax giveaways,” Tlaib said.

Billionaire Dan Gilbert was able to get state and local officials to look the other way and “illegally” designate these census tracts that do not meet poverty guidelines, Tlaib said.

“They get it with no accountability,” Tlaib said.

But at Thursday’s Senate hearing, senators generally praised the opportunity zone program.

Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the committee, asked how the EDA is ensuring that preference given to opportunity zones does not put other distressed communities at a greater disadvantage.

“Opportunity zones already have a leg up with private investors due to their generous tax preferences,” Carper said. “In some cases, impoverished areas that weren’t designated as opportunity zones are losing out because potential investors would rather invest in opportunity zones instead. I’m concerned about this practice… that it could inadvertently further disadvantage distressed communities who need EDA grants.”

Fleming said there are special criteria set forth in the statute, including that the poverty rate in the area has to be at least 20 percent. From that, the governors themselves select the census tracts, Fleming said.

“We try to be mindful of any potential for investment in areas that really don’t need our help,” he said. “We remember it’s still a competitive process and we’re going to go where the need is the greatest.”

The affordable housing crisis reaches new heights

WASHINGTON — With the 2020 elections looming, politicians need to take into account a growing dissatisfaction among voters over the lack of stable and affordable housing, senior leaders with the National Low Income Housing Coalition said Thursday.

Speaking at the National Press Club, coalition officials said they had surveyed Americans in five cities – Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Little Rock and Indianapolis – and heard frequent complaints about the escalating cost of housing leading Americans to scramble to find an affordable place to live.

According to the coalition, renters’ incomes have increased 5 percent since 1960, while rent costs have risen 61 percent. Only 25 percent of families in the United States in need of housing assistance are receiving it. The number of homeless people has skyrocketed.

In 2018, there were 17 million vacant housing units in the U.S. even as thousands of people were living on the streets, according to Fatima Goss Graves, CEO of the National Women’s Law Center.

Although the Trump administration has convened city leaders to talk about housing, President Donald Trump’s tweets have created a narrative that larger, more Democratic cities are to blame for the housing crisis, Irma Espara Diggs, director of federal advocacy at the National League of Cities, said.

“For each community, whether it be large, small, led by a Republican or Democrat or independent, this is not a blue city versus red city issue, this is an issue that affects everybody,” Diggs said.

She and other coalition leaders said federal housing funds may not be allocated in the best ways to address the problems, and more effort is needed. They support legislation that enables Americans to work in the communities where they live.

“Mayors and city council members are on the frontline every day dealing with this issue, and the reality is that even though housing may not have been a central part of their platform when they ran for office, they feel it is their responsibility to address it,” said Diggs.

Coalition members argued that housing problems create difficulties in many aspects of peoples’ lives. A lack of affordable housing can lead to health problems, said Dr. Megan Sandel, principal investigator with Children’s HealthWatch.

“What our research says over and over is that a stable, decent affordable home is a prescription for good health,” said Sandel.

Unions testify on poor working conditions, outsourcing of low-paying jobs for airline ground workers

WASHINGTON — In its first hearing on the working conditions of airline ground workers, a House aviation subcommittee heard from workers and unions that wages are low, conditions are often unsafe and health care is inadequate.

Esteban Barrios, a worker at Miami International Airport, told the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s aviation subcommittee that he and others lift heavy bags in the Miami heat without easy access to drinking water.

“We just take painkillers and try to get through the day,” Barrios said. “They think we are machines.”

Airline grounds workers face dangerous working conditions, according to the committees’ summary documents. In August, Kendrick Hudson, 24, died of injuries on the tarmac at an airport in North Carolina after swerving his cart to avoid a stray suitcase. His union, the Communications Workers of America, said his death was preventable and part of a pattern of workplace injuries, some of them fatal, among airline ground workers.

“Why do we continue to wait until an accident happens until we act?” Barrios said. “Our lives have been impacted.”

Rep. Lloyd Smucker, R-Pa., said workers’ rights are protected by laws as well as regulations from Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

But Marlene Patrick-Cooper, president of the UNITE HERE local 23 workers union, said there are gaps in OSHA standards and airline grounds workers, particularly subcontractors, face a “two-fold crisis”: low wages and inadequate access to quality healthcare.

“It tends to be a vicious circle,” Patrick-Cooper said. “It’s like a bleeding you can just not plug up. It has to be fixed.”

Patrick-Cooper said airlines have outsourced many of their catering operations to third parties, causing the industry to become dominated by two large subcontractor companies. She said airline companies’ contract terms with caterers likely leave little room to pay workers a living wage.

Airline companies shuffle their workers between subcontractors and airline subsidiaries to keep wages low, said Miami-Dade County, Florida, Commissioner Eileen Higgins. She said her county struggles to force subcontractors to comply with a living wage requirement, which is aimed at helping employees support themselves and live above the poverty line.

“At the municipal and local level, sometimes it’s very hard for us to require airline subsidiaries to ask certain airline subcontractors to comply with minimum wage standards, particularly when airports are on public property,” Higgins said.

To counter outsourcing trends of airline companies, the workers unions advocated for a law that would require contractors to provide workers with a living wage. Brian Callaci, a labor economist, said a living wage law would not allow companies to outsource just because the wage is low.

“In this country, people should be able to make a living and raise their family,” Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., said. “That’s the American way. Profits and outsourcing getting in the way of that is an issue for me.”

The Supreme Court Revisits “Bridgegate” scandal which could set a new precedent for public corruption

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday heard arguments in the 2013 New Jersey “Bridgegate” scandal on whether using government workers and property to punish a political enemy should be a federal crime.

Aides to former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie obstructed traffic on the nation’s busiest bridge as political retaliation against then Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for refusing to endorse Christie’s re-election bid. The aides, Bridget A. Kelly and Bill Baroni, were convicted of several counts of criminal fraud.

Kelly and Baroni changed traffic patterns on the George Washington Bridge to reduce from three to one the number of lanes reserved for vehicles accessing the bridge from Fort Lee. They also created a phony traffic study to justify the change in traffic, which resulted in excessive traffic jams in Fort Lee for three days.

The court will weigh whether Kelly’s and Baroni’s use of public property, such as employee labor and traffic lanes, to punish a political opponent is fraud. Their traffic study required public engineers to work for a collective 36 hours, amounting to $1,828 in labor costs. Another $3,696 were spent in additional wages for tollbooth employees.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that in masking their scheme to punish Fort Lee’s mayor, the pair had misused public property, which constitutes fraud.

During the Supreme Court hearing, Justice Samuel Alito appeared to agree with the appeals court, arguing that money lost during the fraudulent traffic study might indeed constitute as a loss of state property.

“So property—money is property. And money was lost,” said Justice Alito.

But attorneys for Kelly and Baroni argued they used their authority to make a “regulatory decision” that inevitably involved the use of public property. Because their main objective was political, their actions could not constitute fraud since the misuse of government property was merely a byproduct of their main goal, the lawyers said.

They also argued that the criminal conviction of officials who misuse government property for political motives is a drastic overstep of federal criminal jurisdiction. They argue that the appeals court decision if upheld, would allow any federal, state or local official to be imprisoned for concealing their true political motives when using public property.

“Taken seriously, it would allow any federal, state, or local official to be indicted on nothing more than the ubiquitous allegation that she lied in claiming to act in the public interest,” said Kelly’s attorney.

Advocates tell House gentrification is increasing homelessness

WASHINGTON –Across the country, gentrification has exacerbated homelessness and the lack of affordable housing, experts and tenant advocates told the House Committee on Financial Services Tuesday.

Karen Chapple, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said that when affluent newcomers move into low-income neighborhoods, property values rise, which can cause long-term residents to become displaced.

Jeffrey Williams, a tenant advocate, told the committee that at one point gentrification increased his housing costs so much that he had to spend over 50 percent of his income on rent.

“Every month, we had to struggle to make that first-of-the-month payment,” Williams said in his statement. “In our house, the rent eats first. We’d rather go hungry than risk being out on the streets.”

After falling behind in rent, his family was evicted and ended up homeless. Currently, the majority of extremely low-income households are severely rent-burdened, meaning they spend more than 50 percent of their earnings on rent, according to a committee memo. An unanticipated expense, like a medical bill, could cause them to default on their rent payment and get evicted.

Matthew Desmond, a professor at Princeton University, said evictions have become commonplace due to stagnant incomes, the rise in housing costs and inadequate federal funding for rent assistance.

Witnesses said voucher allocations and congressional efforts to fund affordable housing have not kept pace with the hike in living costs across the nation, putting many Americans at risk of eviction and homelessness.

“I am deeply dismayed that, despite these numbers, Congress has failed to prioritize this issue and continues to underfund the very programs that would help people afford a roof over their heads,” Chairwoman Maxine Waters,D-Calif., said.

The committee is currently considering four bills to address the affordable housing crisis, including measures that aim to end homelessness, support housing infrastructure, stabilize families and provide safety nets.

The committee’s deliberation over solutions went back and forth between market-based solutions and increased federal subsidies for existing programs.

Michael Hendrix, director of state and local policy at the free-market think tankManhattan Institute, said the housing crisis cannot be solved without creating more housing and market-based solutions.
Priya Jayachandran, president of the National Housing Trust, said that while she believes in market dynamics, cobbling together sources of capital to keep properties affordable is the “biggest challenge.”

However, Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., said increasing the housing supply costs money so it won’t be easy.

Maintenance backlog cripples national park

YORKTOWN, Va. — Colonial National Historical Park is home to Yorktown, the site of the final major battle in the American Revolutionary War. Now, historical Yorktown is once again fighting for its life, but this time, it’s not because of British troops — rather a growing deferred maintenance backlog.

Colonial, as the park is locally known, has $400 million in deferred maintenance backlog costs for work that has been delayed beyond a normal cycle for repairs. Without these funds, the park can’t repair the sagging floors, peeling paint and termite outbreaks in its historical structures.  

Park Superintendent Kym Hall said historical structures like the ones at Colonial are significantly costlier to maintain than modern houses. Each part has to be custom-made and has fit historical standards.

Hall said the lack of maintenance does not only look bad, but can cause public safety hazards, forcing the park to shut down historical structures. One of her priorities is to reopen these buildings so the public can view them.

“Ultimately, [the park] is not just for preserving, it’s for connecting people to that piece of history,” Hall said. “If we could get into these buildings and get them touring around … it just kind of transports you to a different place in time and that’s what we want.”

A bipartisan bill to fund overdue park maintenance was recently introduced in the Senate, but it has not yet passed. A previous version of the bill passed the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, but died with the new Congress.

A sponsor of the bill, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., specifically mentioned the backlog at Colonial as one of his reasons for introducing this bill.

“We owe it to our Commonwealth and to our country to pass this bill,” he said. “This problem will only worsen if we fail to act.”

“I felt very detached,” says new mother who struggled with perinatal depression

WASHINGTON –– Gail Sasse gave birth to her son, Joey, in late February, but she didn’t feel close to the baby until recently. Joey spent the first days of his life in the NICU after he began experiencing tremors — a symptom of neonatal abstinence syndrome. He was no longer receiving the mood stabilizing medication he had grown accustomed to in the womb.

“They took him right away to the NICU. So I never really had that initial bonding experience with him because I was passing out from blood transfusions,” Sasse said. “Just in the past couple of days have I felt like he’s mine.”

Sasse was first diagnosed with depression when she was 14 years old and bipolar disorder when she was 18 years old.

She stopped taking her medication before she became pregnant because she was worried about how it would affect the baby. However, she said the change in hormones during pregnancy exacerbated her mood disorders. She found herself frequently tired and unable to function at her job in human resources at the University of the District of Columbia, where she was ultimately fired.

At that point, she went back on her medication, including depression medication Pristiq, a serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor or SNRI, and lithium for bipolar disorder. The medications posed health risks to her baby, such as tremors from withdrawal and heart defects.

But her doctor did not properly adjust her dose for her pregnant body, which the National Institutes of Health says, on average, pumps 50 percent more blood than a non-pregnant woman. In December, Sasse was hospitalized at the psychiatric unit at Sibley Hospital for seven days.

According to Dr. Emma Basch, a psychotherapist specializing in women’s mental health, 15 to 20 percent of pregnant women struggle with perinatal depression.

She said perinatal mood disorders are often compounded by social expectations of pregnancy and early motherhood. “There is this shattered expectation of what is supposed to be a wonderful time of life. And it’s not for them, and that’s really heartbreaking,” she said.

Sasse continues to take antidepressants and find a community that can help her get through her mental health issues. She wants other women struggling with perinatal depression to know that they are not alone.

“What I would ultimately like to do is write a children’s book about the mother going to the hospital, getting stronger and getting better for her child,” Sasse said.

Tribal Governments Want More Power to Investigate Cases of Missing, Murdered Indigenous Women

WASHINGTON — Native American tribal governments need more power to properly investigate and prosecute cases of murdered and missing Native American women, tribal advocates told a House Natural Resources subcommittee Thursday.

Tribal governments often have difficulty investigating and prosecuting cases due to jurisdiction issues —if the perpetrator is not a Native American, or the identity can’t be determined, “it paralyzes the tribal government from taking action,” said Mary Kathryn Nagle, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and legal counsel to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center.

“There’s a connection between tribal sovereignty and the safety of Native women,” she told the Indigenous Peoples Subcommittee.

A provision in the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act gave tribes criminal jurisdiction over non-Native Americans in cases involving them. The act expired Feb. 15, when a federal stop-gap funding bill did not include it. According to a 2018 National Congress of American Indian report on the jurisdiction provision’s first five years, 18 tribes exercise this special jurisdiction.

A 2010 report by the Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice estimated that 97 percent of female Native American victims would experience violence by a non-Native perpetrator in their lifetimes, and 90 percent by an intimate partner of non-Native descent.

Witnesses called for more complete tribal power over murder and kidnapping cases involving non-tribal members.

In situations where law enforcement does have jurisdiction over non-Native perpetrators, Nagle also decried their “lack of response.”

“Too often, it’s family members and friends searching [for missing and murdered Indigenous women], not law enforcement,” she said.

Ruth Buffalo, a representative in North Dakota’s state legislature and member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, spoke about leading the 2017 search for Savanna Lafontaine-Greywind, a 22-year-old who disappeared while eight months pregnant.

“[The local task force] thought, if and when this should ever happen again, we didn’t want to waste time in having to convince law enforcement that we are human beings, and that we deserve justice,” said Buffalo.

At Lafontaine-Greywind’s trial, Buffalo said that William Hoehn downplayed the disappearance, saying she was “always going missing.” In October, Hoehn was sentenced to life in prison with a chance of parole for his involvement in kidnapping Lafontaine-Greywind’s baby, which was cut out of her womb, but acquitted of charges for conspiring to murder her.

Sarah Deer, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, and professor of gender studies at the University of Kansas, said that Native Americans have a “well-founded” mistrust of law enforcement because of historical persecution.

“If [a missing woman] is not the perfect victim…, if she’s had an addiction problem, or she’s been homeless, or her children have been taken from her, and you go to urban or off-reservation police departments, oftentimes families tell us there’s just a shrug and a ‘Well, what did you expect?’” said Deer.

Witnesses also said that a lack of comprehensive data on these women could contribute to difficulties in investigating cases and locating missing women.

A compilation of statistics from the National Crime Information Center’s Missing Person and Unidentified Person Files reported that 322,865 women and 10,642 Native Americans were missing in 2017. There was no number given specifically for Native American women.

In 2016, there were 5,712 reports of missing Native women and girls, according to the center. Just 116 of them were logged into the Department of Justice’s federal missing persons database.

Deer highlighted the importance of data collection as another solution to the issue, but also emphasized the continued involvement of Native people themselves.

Deer said that the federal government could partner with Native-operated nonprofits like the Sovereign Bodies Institute, an open-source data collection service, but “it needs to be on the terms of the Indigenous people.”

“It’s critical that Native people are at the forefront of this effort,” she said. “Even if we were to receive federal funding, it still should be tribal members and families and survivors that should drive the data collection.”

Lawmakers Call to Speed Up Infrastructure Projects, Minimize Environmental Impacts

WASHINGTON – Federal regulations are a roadblock to completing federally funded highway projects quickly and cheaply, several senators said Wednesday, but others cautioned against streamlining the process at the expense of environmental protection.

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said waiting for federal approval costs states and towns time and money.

“It shouldn’t take years to permit projects that take only months to complete,” he said.

Patrick McKenna, vice president for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, agreed.

Completing projects more quickly is “really impactful” for states, said McKenna. “Even when we shave [off] a week, a month, two months, in a lot of states, that’s the whole construction season.”

Sen. Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the committee, said he would not support streamlining legislation that weakened environmental protections.

“The benefits of highway infrastructure will be impeded, if not downright nullified,” said Carper, “if we don’t address the threats of climate change and extreme weather events that are increasingly disrupting our nation’s transportation system.”

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., echoed Carper, saying he supported simplification “as long as it’s not protection for crummy environmental protection.”

To cut down on environment-related regulations, some witnesses suggested using more categorical exclusions to federal review. Typically, the White House Council on Environmental Quality will confirm that a group of actions doesn’t have a significant impact on the environment, and therefore doesn’t require assessments or impact statements., McKenna suggested allowing federal agencies to use exclusions in place at other federal agencies.

Additionally, federal, state and local agencies could make permitting for routine projects easier and faster, suggested Michael Replogle, deputy commissioner for policy at the New York City Department of Transportation. He also said the Federal Highway Administration could give more design and certification authority to states, reducing federal involvement, or increase direct funding to cities, reducing state involvement.

Lawmakers also called for long-term reauthorization of federal highway funding, which expires in September 2020. Former President Barack Obama signed the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, or FAST Act, into law in 2015. It was the first multi-year surface transportation bill enacted in over a decade.

If the funding authorization expires, the Federal Highway Administration will not be able to reimburse states for their projects.

States support a five-year reauthorization rather than just extending it for a year. McKenna explained that state departments of transportation plan for 10, and make projections for 20 to 30 years.

“Without knowing how much we can invest, all of those plans are for naught,” said McKenna, who is also director of the Missouri Department of Transportation.

He said that when states can’t count on federal reimbursement for infrastructure projects, they stop taking financial risks. Missouri itself is running two capital programs to prepare to pay for projects in case FAST Act reauthorization fails.

If the federal government does not pitch in, said McKenna, “that will literally take 35 to 40 percent of our capital programs right off the books.”

Even if the act is reauthorized, funding remains uncertain. The money comes from the Federal Highway Administration’s national Highway Trust Fund, but the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the fund will not be able to meet state demand as early as fiscal 2021.

The fund is financed mostly by the gas tax, which is 18.4 cents a gallon on gasoline and 24.4 cents a gallon on diesel. The tax has lost much of its value since 1993, the last time it was increased—18 cents then would be 31 now. If the fund hits zero, states will have to wait for the gas taxes to trickle in.

PANELISTS DESCRIBE PERSISTENT NURSING HOME ABUSE TO SENATORS

WASHINGTON — A health expert and the family members of elderly abuse victims told a Senate committee Wednesday that many nursing homes are unsafe and treat their patients abusively, including rape.

Seminole, Florida resident Maya Fischer told the Senate Finance Committee that her then 83-year-old mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, was raped by a nursing home caregiver who had been investigated multiple times in the past for sexually assaulting nursing home residents but kept his job.

“The dignity which she always displayed during her life, which had already been assaulted by her disease, was dealt a further devastating blow by her caregiver,” Fischer said.

Finance Committee senior Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden said the elderly in nursing homes are vulnerable and are “being exploited in unimaginably cruel ways in nursing homes that are unsafe, under-staffed and uninterested in providing even the most basic, humane level of care.”

Harvard Medical School Professor David Grabowski cited a 1974 Senate Special Committee on Aging report that found “lack of human dignity, lack of activities, untrained and inadequate numbers of staff, ineffective inspections and enforcement, profiteering, lack of control on drugs” and other forms of poor care in nursing homes. Grabowski said these are many of the same issues plaguing care facilities today.

“We have made important progress towards improving nursing home quality in the past few decades since the 1974 U.S. Senate report,” he said. “I would assert, however, that the nursing home sector is better but still not well.”

But American Health Care Association Senior Vice President of Quality and Regulatory Affairs David Gifford argued that while he was “appalled and disgusted” by the cases of abuse the victims’ family members described, those incidents are not representative of most caregivers. He argued that their stories don’t reflect the improving quality of care in nursing homes across the country.

“I’ve heard thousands of heart-warming accounts of how nursing home staff look after residents as if they were their own family members … Listening to media stories, one might think the quality of care in nursing homes is getting worse,” he said. “This is not true.”

The witnesses said there must be more thorough investigation of workers’ employment history and that more staff are needed to properly care for residents. A data analysis by Kaiser Health News found that nursing home employees fluctuate greatly day-to-day, sometimes with personnel caring for almost twice as many residents as they did when the highest number of staff were on duty. Staff shortages can lead to lack of thoroughness in checking workers’ employment records, leading to cases like Fischer’s.

Worker shortages can also lead to neglect, which is the most common type of nursing home abuse, according to the Nursing Home Abuse Center. In 2018, 95 percent of nursing home residents reported neglect of medical concerns, basic needs and personal hygiene or emotional needs.

Neglect and other forms of abuse can result in wounds, injuries, increased risk of new illnesses and higher levels of depression, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse. The NCEA also reports that elders who have been abused have a 300 percent higher risk of death than those who have not experienced abuse.

Patricia Blank of Shell Rock, Iowa told the committee that her mother’s death was the result of nursing home neglect. Blank said she and her family had believe her mother was getting good care in the nursing home for the 15 years she was there, but they learned that in the weeks before her mother’s death, she had barely eaten or drank any fluids and had been crying out in pain at night.

Fischer also said she felt her trust was betrayed. She learned of her mother’s rape the week of Christmas in 2014.

“Now and for the rest of my life, when I think of my mother at Christmas, I will think of that horrifying call,” she said. “The sense of helplessness I felt trying to comfort her while she had a rape kit performed on her will always remain with me.”

FOR MIGRANT CHILDREN AT THE BORDER, CONFUSION CLOUDS THE FUTURE

WASHINGTON – In the months after the Trump administration formally ended its family separation policy at the U.S.-Mexico border, more than 200 new immigrant children were separated from their families and the number previously separated was much larger than reported. And thousands more than originally reported were separated earlier.

According to some lawmakers, the new separations and underreporting of previous separations is the result of two issues: a lack of communication among immigrant agencies and an unwritten policy that still permits family separations.

“It’s as if nobody discussed how reunification would happen before this policy was implemented,” said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, during a Feb. 7 hearing on the Trump administration’s family separation policy.

“I really think that what we’re talking about is state-sponsored child abuse, and I would go as far as to say kidnapping of children,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., said during the hearing.

Family separations began under the Justice Department’s “zero tolerance” policy. After public outcry, President Donald Trump’s executive order ended the separations in June 2018. However, from the end of June through December last year, there have been at least 218 more separations, according to a Jan. 17 report from the Office of Inspector General in the Health and Human Services Department.

This report also revealed that there were “thousands” more migrant children separated from their parents than the government previously recorded, which signals that the full extent of the family separations under the Trump administration is larger than many believe.

To better understand why hundreds of immigrant children are still searching for their parents in the U.S., it’s helpful to examine the processes of implementation, identification and reunification under current Trump administration policy.

Implementation

On April 6, 2018, then Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo outlining the department’s new “zero tolerance” policy, which directed federal prosecutors to criminally charge adult migrants entering the U.S. illegally and border officials to separate them from any children they brought. Children cannot be held in immigration detention facilities with their parents because they are not referred for prosecution. Instead, they are held in separate child detention facilities.

Just five days later, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said the administration had not implemented any policies allowing family separations at the border in testimony before the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee.

A Houston Chronicle report contradicted Nielsen’s claim, even citing cases of family separation before Session’s April 2018 memo. The report found 22 cases from June to November 2017 of parents with no history of immigration violations who were prosecuted for the misdemeanor crime of improper entry and separated from their children.

Improper entry is defined as entering the country outside of established ports of entry as designated by U.S. immigration officers.

Kennji Kizuka of Human Rights First, a migrant rights organization, said because the family separation policy was enforced at ports of entry, asylum seekers crossed elsewhere, encouraging further illegal immigration.

“It’s a very cruel irony that this policy is being enforced at points of entry where people are trying to seek asylum legally. If they cross between the points of entry they are not currently subject to this policy,” Kizuka said.

Facing mounting pressure from Congress and the public, Trump ended family separations under the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on June 20, 2018 with an executive order.

“What we’ve relied on for the last couple of years has been a strategy of public pressure and that was what really forced this administration to back down from the child separation policy,” a Democratic Senate aide said.

A federal judge followed Trump’s move with a June 26 decision ordering the government to reunify all separated children and parents.

Identification

After Trump’s executive order and subsequent court order, the Office of Refugee Resettlement was responsible for coordinating the placement and care of unaccompanied immigrant children through its Unaccompanied Alien Children program. ORR does not apprehend migrants at the border or enforce U.S. immigration laws.

Jonathan White, former deputy director of ORR, claimed HHS worked closely with Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement after the June 26 court order to identify all parents of children in ORR’s care who met the criteria for reunification.

White claimed that there were 2,816 children who qualified under court order to be identified and reunited with their parents, all of whom were able to be located by the UAC Portal case management system.

The Government Accountability Office released this chart which reveals the total number of children that ORR identified for potential reunification as of September 10. (G

However, a Government Accountability Office report from October revealed that the HHS did not have a consistent method of identifying separated children and their parents, which presented difficulties in reunifying families.

Prior to the court’s ruling, HHS had never been required to identify, categorize or track separated children entering ORR care for the purposes of reunification.

HHS had to additionally assess the health of the parent, determine the location of their apprehension and separation, and evaluate if reunification with the parents could present a danger to the child.

White said that HHS collected a wide variety of data sets from different agencies, including CBP and ICE, and the case management records for every child in ORR care as of June 26, 2018 to identify family matches.

But HHS was not obligated to identify children separated from their parents if the children were released by ORR to a sponsor or someone claiming to be their guardian, before the June 26 court order. Because of that, HHS officials estimated that thousands of additional children were separated by DHS, referred to ORR care, and released through standard ORR processes prior to that date, according to Ann Maxwell, assistant inspector general for HHS Evaluation and Inspections.

Maxwell added that incomplete information about separations that happened after Trump’s executive order and the court injunction hurt ORR’s ability to identify the remaining separated children for reunification.

“Separation is a possibility under exigent circumstances in order to protect the child and to ensure the wellbeing of the child and are not attributable to zero tolerance,” said a CBP official. The official added that these circumstances can include a parent who has a criminal history, outstanding criminal warrant, communicable disease, fraudulent claim of guardianship or drug smuggling charge.

Reunification

After HHS identified the 2,816 children separated from their parents, the process of reunifying them began.

“There were three agencies, and each was like its own stovepipe,” said U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw, who was presiding over the case. “Each had its own boss, and they did not communicate. What was lost in the process was the family. The parents didn’t know where the children were, and the children didn’t know where the parents were. And the government didn’t know either.”

This chart from an HHS report indicates the number of migrant children referred to ORR by DHS from July 1 to Nov. 7, 2018.

In his ruling, Sabraw said families could be only separated under very limited circumstances in which a parent posed a danger to the child. However, Sabraw did not establish standards of oversight for this requirement.

As of Feb. 7, White said, 2,155 of the 2,816 children identified for reunification were with the parent from whom they were separated.

The remaining 661 children left ORR care through other appropriate discharges, remained in the U.S. with a sponsor or did not have parents who met the requirement for reunification.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the federal class action lawsuit, is responsible for aiding the parents in the process of reunification with their children.

What’s Happening Now?

There are still reports of family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border, as ORR received at least 118 children separated by DHS from July 1 through Nov. 7, 2018 for reasons including a parent’s gang affiliation, illness or hospitalization, or immigration history.

The Justice Department told the ACLU that it isn’t obligated to report new separations because they are no longer done under the zero-tolerance policy. In some cases of family separations, DOJ would not specify certain crimes, nor the evidence, that migrant parents were suspected of committing.

As CBP stated previously, parents can be lawfully separated from their child if they pose a danger, which was supported by Sabraw’s court ruling.

However, Sabraw did not establish specific standards of oversight for this requirement.

As a result of this absence of oversight, immigration rights groups have claimed that border agents now have the authority to determine what classifies a parent as a danger to the child.
“In the U.S., lawful rights are always seen by a judicial process and that’s part of what’s been missing in this whole situation,” said Lee Goodman of the Shut Tornillo Down Coalition, which aims to end the children’s detention centers. “Border patrol agents, ICE officers and others have been allowed to operate without much oversight, particularly since the children don’t have representation.”

The coalition lobbied to shut down the child detention center in Tornillo, Texas, which closed in January.

Some migrant parents have filed lawsuits against the federal government for the damage that the separations caused them and their children, while lawmakers try pin down exactly how many children were separated before the DOJ’s April 2018 memo.

Nielsen is scheduled to testify before the House Homeland Security committee on March 6. Chairman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi will likely question Nielsen about the magnitude of the administration’s family separation policy.

 


 

Medill Today // March 19, 2020