News

The invisible children of California

Children at a "Day Without an Immigrant" rally in Los Angeles. (Photo: Krista Kennell, via Shutterstock)

California has hundreds, perhaps thousands, of children that cannot be accounted for. They are among the estimated 45,704 unaccompanied undocumented minors who were apprehended by federal authorities between Oct. 1, 2017 and Aug. 31, 2018 as they tried to enter California through its southern border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Another 90,563 individuals were detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection as part of a “family unit.” CBP defines a family unit as at least one parent, usually the mother, travelling with children, but does not provide a breakdown of the average number of children in a unit.  Some of these children were separated from their parents or other family members.

To understand the issue, we must understand what happens to a child when the child crosses the border without a parent, including whose care they wind up in, their chain of custody and who all the players are.

The state of California and its localities have no idea how many of these children are living in their communities, whether they are living in shelters, group homes, foster homes, “transitional families” or with sponsors.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the offices of the Department of Health and Human Services might know, but if they have information, they are not sharing it with California, a representative from the state Department of Social Services told Capitol Weekly.

To understand the issue, we must understand what happens to a child when the child crosses the border without a parent, including whose care they wind up in, their chain of custody and who all the players are. We must also follow the blizzard of initials that identify myriad agencies.

Let’s start with a young person we’ll call Maria—a person who is a composite constructed from several cases reviewed by Capitol Weekly and who represents the kinds of obstacles confronting an undocumented minor.

Maria is a refugee from Guatemala. She is 10 years old and escaped a region overtaken by extreme violence. She made the journey north with members of her village but without her mother or father. She has no documentation. Her parents hope that when she arrives at the border, she will be given asylum and allowed to live with her aunt and uncle, who legally reside in the United States.

ORR placed Maria in its program, pending a judgment by an immigration court on the child’s asylum claim.

When Maria crossed into the United States at Calexico, she was apprehended by federal authorities. Her information was then entered into the Department of Homeland Security’s system. Maria claimed asylum, and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services considered her claim. USCIS has the option of immediately rejecting Maria’s asylum request, which would result in her immediate deportation.

However, because USCIS decided to investigate her claim, Maria entered the Department of Health and Human Services system under the jurisdiction of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. ORR, although largely unknown to the public, is a critical piece of the federal immigration system.

ORR placed Maria in its program, pending a judgment by an immigration court on the child’s asylum claim. ORR is assisted by two nongovernment organizations, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

ORR, USCCB or LIRS contacts private community agencies contracted by ORR to secure bed space for Maria at a facility or in a home.

In California, there are at least 11 private agencies contracted by ORR to assist with the housing of undocumented children. HHS and ORR do not provide a full list of their contractors.

But some of them are BCFS Health and Human Services in Fairfield, Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County in San Jose, Crittenton Services for Children and Families in Fullerton, David & Margaret Youth and Family Services in La Verne, International Christian Adoptions in Temecula, and Nuevo Amanecer Latino Children’s Services in Los Angeles.

Additionally, Texas-based Southwest Keys Program runs juvenile shelters in the California cities of El Cajon, Pleasant Hill, San Diego and Lemon Grove.

Here is where things start to get opaque.

Capitol Weekly attempted to contact all the agencies mentioned above to verify their relationship with ORR, their involvement with unaccompanied minor children and the nature of their operations. We did not seek personal details about any children. Rather, we wanted information on how the system operates, and we wanted to see raw data on the number of children that were in the system.

The first priority for a sponsor is a parent living in the United States, followed by a legal guardian, family member or friend of the family.

Multiple requests to International Christian Adoptions, David & Margaret Youth and Family Services, and Catholic Charities received no reply. Southwest Keys and Crittenton replied with a statement referring Capitol Weekly to ORR. BCFS did likewise, after stating that they “do not — and has never — housed any children separated from their parents as part of the ‘zero tolerance’ policy enacted by the current administration.”

Only Nuevo Amanecer in Los Angeles consented to an interview.

According to Nuevo Amanecer director Norma Duque, when a private agency tells ORR that they have bed space, ORR transfers custody of the child to the agency. The agency places the child in one of their shelters or group homes (such as Crittenton, David & Margaret or Southwest Key, for example) or with a foster family or transitional home (such as BCFS, International Christian Adoptions or Nuevo Amanecer, among others).

Once an agency has placed the child in its system, the agency searches for a sponsor for that child. The first priority for a sponsor is a parent living in the United States, followed by a legal guardian, family member or friend of the family.

If a potential U.S. sponsor is found, the agency runs background checks on the sponsor and inspects the possible home situation, similar to what’s involved when placing a child with a foster family.

According to Eric Hargan, HHS deputy secretary, ORR also makes a similar call “to make sure that the [child] and their sponsors did not require additional services.

If a U.S. sponsor cannot be found, the agency works with the child’s home country’s consulate to find a relative back home. If no sponsors are found, the child can linger in the system for years, transferred from facility to facility, from foster family to foster family. Their one escape is choosing voluntary deportation.

If the sponsor passes muster, ORR is contacted. ORR does its own screening. Once ORR approves the sponsor, the child is passed from the agency’s custody to that of the sponsor. Within 24 hours, the agency must complete a “discharge notification,” informing Department of Homeland Security of the child’s transfer to a sponsor.

Placed in the sponsor’s custody, the child is no longer the responsibility of the agency, ORR, HHS or the federal government. However, the agency is required to conduct a safety and well-being follow-up call with the child and their sponsor 30 days after the child is released from the agency’s custody.

According to Eric Hargan, HHS deputy secretary, ORR also makes a similar call “to make sure that the [child] and their sponsors did not require additional services.”

On April 26, Steven Wagner, acting assistant secretary of HHS’s Administration for Children and Families, testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

The reports prompted the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs’ Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations to look into what was happening to “unaccompanied alien children.”

“From October to December 2017, ORR attempted to reach 7,635 UAC [unaccompanied alien children] and their sponsors. Of this number, ORR reached and received agreement to participate in the safety and well-being call from approximately 86 percent of sponsors. From these calls, ORR learned that 6,075 UAC remained with their sponsors. Twenty-eight UAC had run away, five had been removed from the United States, and 52 had relocated to live with a non-sponsor. ORR was unable to determine with certainty the whereabouts of 1,475 UAC,” he said.

The New York Times and AP reported that 1,475 children were “lost” by ORR. One month after the news reports of “lost children,” HHS released a statement acknowledging that the children were unaccounted for but disputed that they were lost.

HHS blamed the press for punishing the administration for their “good deeds,” Congress for a “broken immigration system,” MS-13 for “exploiting loopholes” and “many” sponsors for being “illegal aliens,” yet did not provide evidence to back their assertions. Additionally, HHS’s accusations were made despite congressional testimony by one of its own asserting that 1,475 children placed in sponsors’ custody were lost.

The reports prompted the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs’ Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations to look into what was happening to “unaccompanied alien children” when they passed from the custody of DHS to HHS/ORR to the agencies.

On Aug. 15, a bipartisan Senate report, “Oversight of the Care of Unaccompanied Alien Children,” found that once a child left the custody of the federal government and its contractors and was placed in the care of a sponsor, the child often lacked post-release services, including education and health care.

Only 31 states have immigration courts, and many of those that do have only one court in the entire state.

Additionally, although HHS and the Department of Justice are required to “address the [sponsor’s] responsibility to attempt to ensure the child’s appearance at all immigration proceedings,” 53 percent of immigration proceedings regarding undocumented children result in removal orders because the child did not show up to a proceeding.

One of the main reasons a child and their sponsor fail to appear at immigration proceedings is because of the long wait time between the child’s apprehension and their first scheduled court appearance—an average of 480 days.

The Government Accountability Office reported that pro bono attorneys are reluctant to take on cases that are so “far into the future,” leaving many children without legal representation.

Additionally, only 31 states have immigration courts, and many of those that do have only one court in the entire state. Children are often required to show up in a court that can be hundreds if not thousands of miles from where they now live. Sponsors are largely unaware that the need to request a change of venue for a court to hear a case in a child’s “home jurisdiction.” Finally, “language barriers and unclear instructions” often trip a sponsor up, especially when no counsel or interpreter is available to help them understand what is going on.

On Aug. 16, the Subcommittee on Investigations held a hearing in which senators grilled representatives from the Department of Justice, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Border Control, and ORR.

So, if federal agencies are unable or unwilling to help shepherd a child such as Maria through the immigration process, what about states and their local jurisdictions? Can they help?

Perhaps, if they were required by law to do so. But even then, states and cities would have to know what was going on. And they don’t.

More from the Senate’s oversight report:

“HHS believes that once ORR releases UACs into their sponsors’ care, their well-being is in the purview of local authorities. Even if an HHS-contracted care provider has concerns about a UAC’s care or safety, those providers report the problems to state and local authorities, not HHS. When state agencies call ORR with concerns about UACs, HHS refers them to ICE. HHS does not take responsibility for UACs under any of those circumstances, nor does HHS track the number of UACs placed into state welfare programs.

“Although HHS places enormous responsibility on state governments to ensure UAC welfare, HHS generally does not notify state or local governments when it places children with sponsors in those communities. The GAO found that representatives from city governments were unaware that UACs were living in their cities.

On Aug. 16, the Subcommittee on Investigations held a hearing in which senators grilled representatives from the Department of Justice, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Border Control, and ORR.

New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan questioned Jonathan White, a senior U.S. Public Health Service official who works under ORR, about ORR’s contact with states, localities and school districts about how regarding unaccompanied children placed with sponsors in their jurisdictions.

White said ORR transmits “summary level information by county to the states.” When challenged as to why ORR didn’t contact child welfare agencies, he claimed that HHS “doesn’t know who to contact.”

LADCFS said it gleans information about unaccompanied minors in Los Angeles County through past contacts established through the Violence Against Women Act of 1994.

Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill noted that child welfare agencies usually have “child welfare” in their title and offered to provide a list of child welfare agencies for ORR.

Capitol Weekly sought information on ORR’s interactions with the California Department of Social Services and three major county agencies that handle child welfare: the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services; Sacramento Department of Child, Family and Adult Services; and the San Francisco Human Services Agency.

We asked each department if HHS, ORR or any private agencies contacted them when an unaccompanied undocumented minor was transferred from federal custody to that of a private agency or sponsor in their jurisdiction. All four departments answered that they received no notification from HHS, ORR or any private agency regarding these children.

The county child-welfare agencies we contacted said that the only time that they are aware of an unaccompanied undocumented minor is if they are contacted by a sponsor or concerned adult reporting child endangerment, neglect, abuse, or if a child runs away and is apprehended by local law enforcement.

State DSS officials said that any information they receive about unaccompanied minors occurs indirectly through a state “licensing inspection or investigation.” Similarly, the LADCFS said it gleans information about unaccompanied minors in Los Angeles County through past contacts established through the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, through L.A.’s regional office of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and through a quarterly meeting of its Special Immigration Status unit, which ORR monitors.

ORR declined to respond to several inquiries seeking information.

When asked if DSS knew how many unaccompanied minors were in the custody of DHS, HHS, ORR, a private agency or a sponsor, DSS spokesman Michael Weston stated that “on July 22, 2018, ORR indicated that it had jurisdiction over 300 minors in California.”

Capitol Weekly’s questions about the locations of these children, the number in each city or county and a breakdown of who had custody of these children were referred to ORR.

ORR declined to respond to several inquiries seeking information.

LADCFS reported that “as of June, there were 104 children” placed with Crittenton Services for Children and Families, David & Margaret Youth and Family Services, International Christian Adoptions, and Nuevo Amanecer Latino Children’s Services. We were unable to confirm this number.

We asked Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Francisco if HHS or ORR provided their child welfare agencies any training or guidance on anything regarding unaccompanied minors. They said no.

HHS and ORR also do not identify to the state or locals their private contractors, even though these agencies must be licensed by the state and counties to provide services to children. There is no specific relationship between state-local government and private agencies regarding unaccompanied minors. There is also no contact between DSS and county child welfare departments regarding unaccompanied minors.

We still do not know how many children like Maria are living in California shelters, group homes, foster care or with sponsors.

As the Senate report notes, when it comes to unaccompanied undocumented minors living in their jurisdiction, U.S. Health and Human Services and the Office of Refugee Resettlement keep the California Department of Social Services and the state’s child welfare agencies in the dark.

HHS, ORR and its contractors also fail to monitor or account for the whereabouts of these children once their custody is transferred to a sponsor and 30 days have passed. Because California and its counties are kept ignorant about HHS/ORR’s activities, the state and its counties are frustrated on several fronts.

With no way to account for the children, they cannot monitor what is going on in their communities. Local authorities are unaware that these children exist and, thus, are unable to prevent abuse, abandonment or neglect before it happens. Schools do not have information needed to enroll these children.

Though the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs instructed ORR’s White to address the federal-state-country disconnect and threatened legislation if ORR failed to act, there has been no known movement by ORR to address this problem.

We still do not know how many children like Maria are living in California shelters, group homes, foster care or with sponsors. The state and its child welfare agencies do not know what is going on with the children’s health and well-being. We do not know if the children have legal representation, translation services or even transportation to court proceedings. We don’t know how many of these children are lost.

The one thing we do know is that these kids are invisible.

 


  • dp

    Thank you for this thorough view of a situation riddled with mismanagement. It confounds me that simple use of a point person, a spreadsheet and a notification alert could have avoided this. Your article confirms my current focus on dusting off my law license after a long corporate non legal career to provide pro bono assistance to unaccompanied minors. I’m not an open borders advocate, but my heart bleeds for young children lost in what is a Kafkaesque nightmare.

Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: