HHS working to identify children separated from families at border

HHS working to identify children separated from families at border
© Getty

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) says it is reviewing the cases of “under 3,000” children who may have been separated from their parents or families at the U.S. border.

HHS officials are trying to whittle that number down further to identify the children who were actually separated from their parents by the U.S. government — as opposed to other circumstances before they came to the U.S. — ahead of a court-imposed deadline to reunite children with their families.

ADVERTISEMENT

HHS has come under fire for not giving an exact number of children in its custody who have been separated from their parents at the border, but it's a difficult question to answer, HHS Secretary Alex Azar told reporters Thursday.

Azar has previously told members of Congress that about 2,053 children in HHS custody have been separated at the border as a result of the administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy.

However, some children were separated before that policy was instated, and the court order says those children must also be returned to their parents.

“There are a myriad of scenarios that make it challenging to apply any specific number, even though we do know, and I want to very clear about this, where every child is and each is being taken care of,” Azar said.

Officials have manually reviewed the case files of the 11,800 children in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) — the majority of which came to the U.S. by themselves, with no parent or guardian.

Of those children, a maximum of “under 3,000” may have been separated from their parents at the U.S. border. That number also came from a review of a compilation of data from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and ORR’s grantees.

With that number, HHS is erring on the side of caution, Azar said, flagging cases where it's not clear if a child was separated by the U.S. government and further information is needed.

For example, Azar said, if a child in the ORR case management file system said they traveled to the U.S. with their father, that child would be one of the "under 3,000" flagged for further examination.

It would not be clear based on that information if the child was actually separated from his father by the U.S. government, and the case would need further review.

In these cases, DHS officials are talking with case managers working with the children to identify what happened.

The ORR, the office within HHS responsible for migrant children, was originally created to take care of children who cross the border unaccompanied. It’s job has grown since the Trump administration began arresting parents crossing the border and sending their children to HHS.

The administration has since been ordered to reunite children with their families — by July 10 for children under the age of 5 and by July 26 for those ages 5 to 17.

“The court’s order imposes obligations on us that requires us to determine whether a parent or a child were separated at the border by DHS personnel,” Azar said.

“Traditionally, when they were separated, the location of that separation was not relevant to HHS’ position of caring for the children in our custody.”

HHS is also using DNA testing to ensure that children are being reunited with their parents, not someone who is claiming to be.