The Trump administration likely separated thousands more children from their families at the border than has been previously acknowledged, a federal watchdog said Thursday.
The exact number, however, is still unknown, according to a report by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General, which provides oversight of the department.
Pursuant to a federal court order issued last year, the department identified 2,737 children separated from their parents.
But that number did not include thousands more who officials say may have been separated from their families starting in 2017, according to the new report.
The children were not included in the earlier count because the court order focused on identifying those who were still in the care of the Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement at the time that it was issued.
The thousands of additional cases would have included children who were released from government custody before the June 2018 court order.
Health and Human Services officials were unable to give the Inspector General’s office more specific information about how those children were released — whether it was to family, other sponsors or foster care, for example, according to the report.
Typically, the vast majority of children in Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters have been unaccompanied minors — those who crossed the border without family.
But officials at the agency began to see a significant spike in the number of children separated from their families in the summer of 2017, as the Trump administration began implementing “zero tolerance” policies that prioritized the prosecution of immigration offenses, according to the report.
Workers caring for the separated children saw that the new population turning up in government shelters often included very young children. At times, the spike in young children, who had to be placed in specially licensed facilities, resulted in a shortfall in beds for children in the agency’s care, the report says.
In order to keep track of separated children, staff at the Office of Refugee Resettlement began using an Excel spreadsheet. That was later replaced by a SharePoint database, but procedures for keeping track of the children were still not formalized and access to the database was limited, according to the report.
The informal tracking procedures mean officials still do not have a precise estimate of the number of separated children or specific details on the ways in which those children were eventually released from the government’s custody.
The report is one in a series of reports that is scheduled to be released this year looking at the Department of Health and Human Service’s role in family separations.
By Paloma Esquivel, Los Angeles Times
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