WASHINGTON (CN) – Systemic regulatory flaws allowed human traffickers to abduct a number of children who entered the United States without adult supervision, Senate investigators said Thursday, summarizing the findings of their latest report.
The report flags “serious deficiencies” in how the Department of Health and Human Services conducts background checks on people seeking to sponsor minors who entered the United States without guardians, as well as in the department’s monitoring of children after placing them with these sponsors.
In some cases discussed by the report, sponsors were allowed to simply refuse attempts by the department to contact children after their placement.
Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican who chairs the Subcommittee on Investigations that produced the report, spoke about the problem of “sponsors for hire” who help human traffickers exploit unaccompanied minors entering the United States.
The report centers on a case from 2014 in which the Department of Health and Human Services released at least six unaccompanied children into the hands of human traffickers in Marion, Ohio.
The traffickers forced the children, some as young as 14, to work 12 hours a day on egg farms in and around Marion, and crammed them into or even under a small, white trailer, investigators found.
In addition to identifying 13 other cases involving the trafficking of unaccompanied minors, the report said 15 more showed “serious trafficking indicators.”
More victims of trafficking could be out there, the bipartisan report cautions, noting that HHS does not maintain records tracking human-trafficking cases.
Though it often places children with relatives, the subcommittee’s investigation focused on so-called Category III sponsors, those with no close relation to the child. Saying HHS did not do enough to verify the alleged relationships in these scenarios, the report found that it usually just took the word of a person claiming to be the child’s family member.
The people vouching for the sponsors were often indebted to them, however, leaving the children vulnerable to exploitation, according to the report.
In the Marion case, for example, investigators said the traffickers who sponsored the children held the deeds on some of the homes of the children’s families and would not let the families repay their debts until after it acquired custody of the children.
Unaccompanied minors typically enter the United States seeking to escape violence or other troubles in their home countries, and often use smugglers to get into the United States. But such arrangements leave them vulnerable to fall into human-trafficking rings, according to the report.
When unaccompanied children enter the United States, it is the responsibility of Health and Human Services to find appropriate places to place them. The Office of Refugee Resettlement takes on this task within the department, and attempts to find a person who can care for the children and help them get to their immigration hearings.
But the report found that, once the children are placed with their sponsors, they often sit in limbo, with no agency claiming responsibility for their wellbeing.
“HHS told the subcommittee that its longstanding view has been that once a child is transferred to the care of a sponsor, HHS has no further power or responsibility,” the report reads.
Investigators unveiled the report at a contentious hearing Thursday before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, where senators grilled HHS representatives for nearly two hours on the department’s policies of placing children with sponsors in the United States.
Senators expressed outrage and disbelief throughout the hearing while trying to pin down answers from the representatives they found lacking.
Testimony proved particularly frustrating with Mark Greenberg, the acting assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families, a division of HHS.
Throughout the hearing, Greenberg responded to senators’ questions by saying he could not speculate on hypothetical scenarios or answer specific questions about the Marion case, citing ongoing investigations.
Robert Carey, director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, did not give an opening statement, as is common at congressional hearings, and answered only a few questions from senators during his two-hour testimony.
“Mr. Chairman, I can’t ask any more questions of these witnesses,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said before leaving the hearing. “This is the definition of noncooperative.”
Greenberg claimed the law that governs the agency’s resettlement of unaccompanied minors restricts what policies the agency can enact to monitor children after placing them with sponsors.
But Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., strongly disagreed with Greenberg’s claim, and read part of the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which explicitly requires the department to “establish policies and programs to ensure that unaccompanied alien children in the United States are being protected from traffickers.”
“I didn’t go to Harvard, I went to one of those public schools, I went to the University of Missouri,” McCaskill said. “And I tell you when I read that law, I don’t think I would have the nerve to say that Congress hasn’t given us the authority to watch these kids.”
But even after McCaskill read the law aloud, Greenberg stood by his contention that it doesn’t allow the agency to conduct home visits or other post-release services in every case. He said he would contact the agency’s lawyers to learn why they interpreted the law this way.
McCaskill pushed back against his claim.
“You’re a lawyer; you know better,” McCaskill said. “You know you can do that under this law.”
Though Greenberg highlighted new policies to combat the failures laid out in the Senate report, the senators seemed less-than impressed with these changes.
“Sen. McCaskill, I would hope that you would both recognize the number of changes and improvements we’ve made in the last year,” Greenberg said after McCaskill questioned some of the changes Greenberg mentioned.
McCaskill cut him off, suggesting some of the changes happened only because of the hearing. She also questioned why other changes took so long for the department to implement.
“No question in the last six months you guys have gotten busy,” McCaskill said. “My question is what’s been going on since 2008?”
In July the agency expanded the scope of cases that would require home visits, and also expanded background checks to include checks on every adult in a household taking in unaccompanied children, Greenberg said.
Previously, only the person seeking to become a sponsor had to undergo a background check, the report found.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said HHS is still nurturing a flawed belief that placing a unaccompanied minor in a sponsor’s care ends the department’s responsibility to help the child.
This logic is central to the issues within the placement system, Portman said.
Portman and McCaskill suggested clarifications to the law could be coming to address the department’s apparent confusion in its authority under the law.
“I will say the report itself is damning,” Portman said after the hearing. “I mean if you look at this report, you can’t help but walk away thinking this is a total failure.”
The report’s release coincides with the conclusion of National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, which President Barack Obama started with an announcement on New Year’s Eve.
In Los Angeles on Thursday, U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker cited several successful human-trafficking prosecutions her office has led, bolstered by a new task force.
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