Reports emerged earlier this week of children from Central America, many of them refugees, being sent by government agencies to private homes where they face abusive conditions, including sexual abuse and human trafficking. Today, a Senate subcommittee will examine those claims, and the process that's used to move immigrant children from public shelters to private homes.
In an investigative report released Monday, The Associated Press found that since April 2014, the department of Health and Human Services (HHS) gradually phased out identity and criminal history checks before sending Central American children to live in private homes:
Since the rule changes, the AP has identified more than two dozen children who were placed with sponsors who subjected them to sexual abuse, labor trafficking or severe abuse and neglect.
“This is clearly the tip of the iceberg,” said Jacqueline Bhabha, research director at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University. “We would never release domestic children to private settings with as little scrutiny.”
A spokesperson for the agency said that the background checks and fingerprinting have since been re-instated. “We are committed to placement of unaccompanied children with appropriate sponsors that serve the best interest of the child,” Bob Carey, the director of the Office for Refugee Resettlement (part of HHS), said in a statement.
More than 125,000 Central American children and teenagers were stopped at the U.S.-Mexico border since 2011, according to the Washington Post, with some being sent to shelters. “We have a large percentage of these kids that disappear, and I don’t know what happens to them,” Jessica Ramos, a lawyer with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, told the newspaper.
The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations conducted its own research in the past six months, finding "more than 30 cases involving serious indications of trafficking and abuse," said Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican senator from Ohio.
The plight of Central American refugees has been highlighted in recent weeks by a backlash against what advocates say are unnecessarily punitive Immigration and Customs Enforcement home raids targeting Central American women and children who have fled violent circumstances in their home countries.