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HHS was unprepared for Trump family separation policy, watchdog says

HHS was unprepared for Trump family separation policy, watchdog says
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Poor communication and internal management decisions left the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) ill-prepared to respond to the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy of family separations, according to an internal watchdog report released Thursday.

The report from HHS's Office of Inspector General paints a picture of an agency caught off guard and struggling to catch up with its response. The lack of preparation hurt the agency's ability to identify, care for and ultimately reunite children who had been separated from their parents. 

"HHS was not responsible for separating families, but HHS’s inadequate communication, management, and planning made the situation worse for many separated children," the report said.  

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According to the inspector general, senior HHS officials had no idea the family separation policy was being implemented by the departments of Justice and Homeland Security until they learned about it from media reports. 

The lack of planning for large-scale separations also resulted in the agency being unable to provide "prompt and appropriate care" for separated children.

It created a lack of available bed space, leaving hundreds of children inappropriately detained in Department of Homeland Security (DHS) custody, instead of with HHS. 

And at the same time, the report found that warnings from staff were ignored. Key senior officials with HHS's Administration for Children and Families (ACF) "did not act on staff's repeated warnings that family separations were occurring and might increase," the report said.

Senior HHS officials also did not always share the staff's alarm about the policy. For example, the acting assistant secretary for ACF stated that he had believed the zero-tolerance policy would have a deterrent effect, resulting in fewer children entering Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) care. 

The report is the latest in a host of investigations conducted by independent government watchdogs into the policy of family separations. 

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"Zero tolerance" called for the criminal prosecution of all adult migrants who were detained after trying to cross the country’s southern border. Any children brought across the border were separated from their parents, deemed to be “unaccompanied,” and held in HHS facilities, sometimes hundreds of miles from their parents.

But the "unaccompanied" label also brought challenges. According to the report, HHS had problems identifying children who were separated from children who actually crossed the border alone.

According to the report, "no procedures or systems had been established to track separated families across HHS and DHS for later reunification."

The official policy resulted in about 2,700 children being separated from their parents over a six-week period in the spring of 2018. 

President TrumpDonald TrumpUS, South Korea reach agreement on cost-sharing for troops Graham: Trump can make GOP bigger, stronger, or he 'could destroy it' Biden nominates female generals whose promotions were reportedly delayed under Trump MORE signed an executive order officially ending the policy amid a public outcry, and a federal judge ordered the administration to reunite all separated children.

However, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has alleged the government has separated more than 900 children despite the order, using extremely minor "criminal" histories such as traffic violations as pretext.

Last fall, the ACLU said that an additional 1,500 children were separated than previously disclosed, bringing the tally to more than 4,000 from the roughly 2,700 children previously known to have been separated that year.

In a statement, HHS's top refugee office said it "is mindful of the continued need to closely examine its policies and procedures and appreciates the on-going feedback and recommendations it has received from the Inspector General, Congress, grantees, advocates, and other stakeholders." 

"As noted in the report, ORR is already taking steps toward implementing recommended changes that are within its statutory authorities," the agency said.