U.S. senators from both political parties blasted the Department of Health and Human Services for failing to protected unaccompanied Central American minors who crossed into the United States illegally during the border surge of 2014. Many of the children were released to adults who later forced them to either become prostitutes or personal slaves.
"Somebody is going to step up as a result of this hearing and take full and complete responsibility for these children," an angry Sen. Claire McCaskill, (D-Missouri) said during a Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing Thursday morning.
The children in question were released by the department of Health and Human Services, congressional investigators say, into the custody of human traffickers or people who exploited them for their labor.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, called it "incredible" that "HHS policy was that no criminal conviction, no matter how serious, automatically disqualified the sponsors."
Lawmakers contend the administration weakened its child protection policies as it was overwhelmed by tens of thousands of children crossing the border during the surge.
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The subcommittee held a hearing Thursday to release the results of a six-month investigation and to examine weaknesses in the department's placement of migrant children which had “serious systemic issues,” according to the subcommittee’s chairman, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman.
At the hearing, HHS officials declined to fully answer many of the senators' questions, at times saying they did not have the legal authority from Congress to follow up on the children.
The investigation by the panel echoes the findings of an Associated Press investigation that found more than two dozen unaccompanied children were sent to homes across the country where they were sexually assaulted, starved or forced to work for little or no pay.
The investigation found that HHS personnel failed to run background checks on the adults in the sponsors' households, did not visit sponsors' homes and weren’t aware that some sponsors were accumulating multiple unrelated children, which can be a sign of human trafficking.
At the center of the investigation and hearing was a well-publicized case in which six Guatemalan minors were placed with human traffickers. Lured to the U.S. with the promise of an education, the teens instead were forced to work up to 12 hours a day on egg farms near Marion, Ohio, under threats of death.
The report says the department did not conduct any home visits in the Ohio case and performed visits in less than 5 percent of cases overall from 2013 to 2015.
Drawing the principal ire of the senators was Mark Greenberg, acting assistant secretary for children and families at the HHS, who testified the Ohio case was a "deeply dismaying event" but said he is not able to discuss details due to an ongoing criminal investigation. He said policies in place at the time were followed.
"The challenge for us was that the program did grow by about 10 times over a three-year period" as the number of unaccompanied minors grew, Greenberg said. He said staffing to handle the surge was "significantly expanded," from about 50 to about 120, but that current law did not allow government officials to more strongly follow up on placements of children.
"We followed the law that Congress enacted," Greenberg said, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Under that law we don't have the ability to make these visits mandatory."
The panel's report says the agency still can't track whether an adult is attempting to sponsor multiple children at the same time. The agency also commonly places unaccompanied children with alleged distant relatives or family friends without setting eyes on the sponsor or their environment. In addition, current policies allow sponsors to prevent children from being contacted by social workers who go to the home for a check-up visit.
Lawmakers from both parties bristled at the officials' answers, saying they weren't adequate when the lives of children had been endangered.
"Perhaps the most troubling, unanswered question is this: how many other cases are there like the Marion trafficking case?" Sen. Portman asked. "The answer is HHS doesn't know."
HHS bars releasing children to anyone convicted of child abuse or neglect or violent felonies like homicide and rape. The department says it recently signed a contract to open new shelters, and is strengthening its protection procedures as the number of young migrants is once again rising.
According to emails, agency memos and operations manuals obtained by AP, some under the Freedom of Information Act, the agency relaxed its procedures as the number of young migrants rose in response to spiraling gang and drug violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
"The bottom line is when a child is admitted into our county, the United States of America should be an example for the world of how we care for those children," McCaskill said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.