The Impact Unaccompanied Children in ORR’s Custody & The Trump Administration Family Separation Policy

Last week the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services (Approps Labor H) held hearings to discuss family separation policy and the conditions of children placed in the Office of Refugee and Resettlement (ORR) facilities based on the Office of Inspector General (OIG) report, “Care Provider Facilities Described Challenges Addressing Mental Health Needs of Children in HHS Custody.”

The Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee and the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the Committee on Energy and Commerce oversight hearing discussed the OIG report on the mental health needs of children in the care of ORR and the effects of the Trump administration’s policies regarding the treatment of children arriving at the southern border. Testimony was provided by Ann Maxwell from the Office of Inspector General, Jonathan Hayes from Office of Refugee Resettlement, and Commander Jonathan White from the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.

Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) stated that “this hearing is part of our oversight responsibility, which we take very seriously. We must. Considerable taxpayer resources are at stake. And, something even more precious is at stake: the mental and physical wellbeing of children.”

Maxwell detailed the OIG report and focused on the interviews with professionals, visits to the various facilities, and the findings and recommendations detailing her experience, which she notes that ORR struggles to address the mental health needs of children who had experienced intense trauma and had difficulty accessing specialized treatment for children who needed it and with prolonged says in the facility children exhibited higher levels of needs.

Commander White noted that the mission of the Unaccompanied Alien Children program is a child welfare mission in which they seek to serve the best interest of each child. In the case of this distinct population of children separated from their parents following DHS apprehension, and before placement at ORR, Commander White noted that HHS had been diligently working on an unprecedented mission to expedite safe reunifications of children with their parents wherever possible. As such, Commander White stated that their work at HHS is to have each separated child back in his or her parent’s arms, or discharged safely to another sponsor where that is the parent’s wish. As a department, he stated, they have done their best to achieve that goal.

John R. Modlin, the Acting Deputy Chief of Law Enforcement Operational Programs of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) described the role of CBP when encountering newly arrived immigrant families and children. He specifically noted that while Border Patrol agents are often the first to meet migrants’ basic needs, such as providing food and water to those who may have spent weeks in the desert, they are only the first point of contact—working to turn migrants over to other agencies as quickly as possible.

Modlin stated that due to the unprecedented levels of family units and UAC arriving at the border, CBP is straining to uphold its humanitarian mission in addition to the border security mission its members were hired to perform. While he acknowledged that additional funding from Congress did provide CBP with more significant resources to meet the needs of the increasing numbers of migrants arriving at the border, ultimately, they cannot adequately address this crisis by shifting resources or building more facilities. Chairwoman Diana DeGette (D-CO) emphasized the need to understand the fallout of policies that separate children from their parents once they arrive at the southern border.

Policy changes enacted under the Trump administration in 2018 that separated young children from their parents upon arrival to the U.S. added further strain to an already overworked and complicated immigration system. As a result, ORR saw a rapid increase in the number of children entering their care and more prolonged than average stays. Facilities charged with caring for these children experienced challenges providing for the needs of these kids, specifically in addressing their mental health needs.

About the Author:

John Sciamanna is CWLA's Vice President of Public Policy.

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