Senators concerned about abuse allegations at migrant shelters

The Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Finance Committee are questioning whether the Trump administration is neglecting its duty to protect unaccompanied immigrant children in its care amid allegations of misconduct at federally funded shelters.

Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon asked for data from U.S. Health and Human Services on occupancy, incident reporting, sexual abuse prevention and federal and state regulation of children's shelters. Their request on Thursday follows a report that thousands of allegations of sexual abuse and harassment were logged over the past four years and as the number of migrant children crossing the border is rising dramatically.

The allegations raise questions on whether the agency has "failed to uphold its statutory duties to ensure the health and safety of children within their care," the senators wrote in a letter to the assistant secretary for children and families. They said the allegations also raise serious questions about how some shelters have used federal funding.

Migrant children taken into custody at the U.S. border are referred to the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services.

They are placed in a network of shelters nationwide run by contractors while officials work to place them with sponsors. By law, children must be placed in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child.

For the first nine fiscal years of the program, only about 8,000 children were served. But so far this fiscal year, there have been 49,100 children sent to their care. Health and Human Services officials say they are unable to manage the influx, and they warn they will soon be at the financial limit.

The senators said the data was necessary to evaluate whether government oversight of the contractors was sufficient to ensure they are held accountable.

"And to safeguard the health and safety of children housed at grantee facilities," they wrote.

A spokeswoman for Health and Human Services said the letter had been received and the department would respond in a timely fashion.

From October 2014 to July 2018, the Office of Refugee Resettlement received 4,556 complaints, including allegations of sexual abuse, harassment and inappropriate behavior. Of those, the Justice Department received 1,303 more serious sex abuse complaints, including 178 allegations of sexual abuse by adult staff, officials said.

The majority of the allegations were "inappropriate sexual behaviors" between minors at the facilities, and shelters can often resolve these allegations through counseling and other non-criminal avenues, officials said.

Department officials said the majority of allegations weren't substantiated, and they defended their care of children. They also noted the accused staff members were not employees of the department.

Health and Human Services officials say all allegations are taken very seriously, and the department cooperates with all investigations. Facilities under government contract must provide training to all staff, contractors and volunteers. Background checks are completed on potential employees, and facilities are prohibited from hiring anyone who has engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior.

A state investigation of one contractor, Texas-based Southwest Key, was prompted by several reports of sexual abuse of immigrant children in Arizona. The Arizona probe found that some shelters had not conducted fingerprint checks for all employees.

Southwest Key has apologized and is working with the state to ensure it never misses a deadline again.