HHS enters damage-control mode over family separations

HHS enters damage-control mode over family separations

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump knocks BuzzFeed over Cohen report, points to Russia dossier DNC says it was targeted by Russian hackers after fall midterms BuzzFeed stands by Cohen report: Mueller should 'make clear what he's disputing' MORE's “zero tolerance” immigration policy has left the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) scrambling to contain what’s quickly becoming a public relations nightmare.

While HHS didn't write the policy, the agency is responsible for implementing the most controversial aspect: housing the children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.

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The agency is being hammered by Democrats, who are demanding specifics on how many children have been separated from their families and details about agency efforts to reunite them with their parents.

Democrats are trying to make HHS Secretary Alex Azar the face of the administration’s confusing retreat from Trump’s divisive policy, intended to prevent unlawful border crossings. And they’re hoping the public will make the same connection.

“This is on your watch, and we will hold you accountable,” Sen. Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowSenate Dems raise concerns about shutdown's impact on assistance to taxpayers Durbin signals he will run for reelection Coal supporter Manchin named top Dem on Senate Energy Committee MORE (D-Mich.) told Azar last week.

The PR offensive, which has included dozens of public letters from lawmakers, is putting agency officials on the defensive. And it comes at a time when HHS would rather be answering questions about Trump's health-care agenda, not migrant children. 

Agency officials have also found themselves needing to push back on accusations that HHS has misplaced children in the agency’s care.

“HHS is aware of every child in our funded facilities care, their location and their identity,” an HHS spokeswoman said Monday. 

A Senate Finance Committee hearing last week was supposed give Azar the opportunity to talk about the administration’s new blueprint for lowering prescription drug prices. Instead, he was inundated with questions from Democrats, and even some Republicans, about efforts to reunite unaccompanied children with their parents.

“The American people are owed an answer about what is going to be done to protect the thousands of children the Trump administration separated from their mothers and fathers and put in the custody of today's witness,” Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenCongress should elevate those trapped in the gap – support ELEVATE Act IRS shutdown plan fails to quell worries IRS waiving penalty for some in first filing season under Trump's tax law MORE (D-Ore.) said during the hearing. 

Azar tried to shift some of the burden of dealing with the immigration crisis onto Congress, saying he is powerless to reunite immigrant children with their parents unless lawmakers change the laws regarding detention time limits.

“We are working to get all these kids ready to be placed back with their parents as soon as Congress passes a change, or if those parents complete their immigration proceedings,” Azar said. “We do not want any children separated from their parents any longer than necessary under the law.” 

Public outrage prompted Trump to abandon his family-separation policy.

Under that approach, parents and other caregivers apprehended after illegally crossing the border into the U.S. were arrested and jailed, and the government placed their children with HHS.

The executive order signed by Trump last month is intended to keep families together while in detention.

A federal judge last week ordered HHS to expedite the reunification of families and to return immigrant children under the age of 5 to their parents within two weeks. Children age 5 and older must be reunited within 30 days.

But HHS has not said how it will reunite those children with their parents.

Azar told lawmakers that his agency is deploying new resources to address the problem; it has created an unaccompanied children reunification task force and is using an online government portal to locate children in custody. 

The agency has also yet to disclose how many children have been reunited with their parents.

The HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement last week said it had in custody more than 2,000 children who were separated from their parents.

But on Monday, an HHS spokeswoman said the agency will no longer publicly provide the number of children being housed by HHS as a result of the zero tolerance policy.

HHS has more than 11,800 minors in its care, the spokeswoman said, which includes children who crossed the border unaccompanied as well as those separated from their parents.

“While we understand the interest in detailed breakdowns of this information, our mission has been and remains to provide every minor transferred to HHS, regardless of the circumstances, with quality and age-appropriate care and a speedy and safe release to a sponsor,” the spokeswoman said. 

Mark Greenberg, who served as head of the HHS Administration for Children and Families from 2013 to 2015, said the confusion and dearth of information from the agency show a lack of planning about how to implement the administration’s immigration policy.

“It was entirely foreseeable that if there was a policy decision to separate children from their parents, parents would want to know where their children are,” Greenberg said. “There simply wasn’t a process put in place to ensure that could happen.”