WASHINGTON (AP) — Migrant children in the government's care fell prey to human trafficking after the Health and Human Services Department failed to protect them, according to a bipartisan congressional investigation released Thursday.
The six-month inquiry found that the government, overwhelmed by the influx of tens of thousands of children crossing the border to flee violence in Central America, failed to conduct the most basic checks on the adults entrusted with caring for the children.
Many adult sponsors didn't undergo thorough background checks. Government officials didn't visit homes and in some cases, had no idea that adult sponsors had several unrelated children, a possible sign of human trafficking.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, chairman of the Senate Homeland and Governmental Affairs investigations subcommittee, said the HHS placement program for migrant children suffers from "serious, systemic defects." The report echoed the findings of an Associated Press investigation.
At a hearing reviewing the program, officials from the department angered Democratic and Republican senators, who dismissed their answers as incomplete or complained that they failed to take full responsibility for the children who were abused or exploited.
At times the officials said they did not have the legal authority from Congress to follow up on the children.
"We are mindful of our responsibilities to these children and are continually looking for ways to strengthen our safeguards," said Mark Greenberg, acting assistant secretary for HHS's Administration for Children and Families.
Greenberg testified that one case was a "deeply dismaying event" but said he was not able to discuss details due to an ongoing criminal investigation. He said policies in place at the time were followed.
"It's discouraging that they won't even acknowledge the fact that they blew it," Portman said after the hearing. "They let these kids go be trafficked in horrible conditions and they won't even say that if they had put in some basic common sense procedures they could have helped avoid this."
The congressional investigation and hearing was in response to a case in Portman's home state of Ohio, where six Guatemalan unaccompanied minors were placed with human traffickers and forced to work up to 12 hours a day on egg farms under threats of death.
Lawmakers argue that the government weakened its child protection policies in recent years as it dealt with the influx. Portman said federal officials don't know how many migrant children they've sent to live with convicted criminals across the U.S. over the last three years.
The congressional hearing cited the AP report that found more than two dozen unaccompanied children were sent to homes across the country where they were sexually assaulted, starved or forced to work for little or no pay.
The congressional report said that as part of the subcommittee's six-month investigation, it reviewed "more than 30 cases involving serious indications of trafficking and abuse."
Since almost all of the children have not been publicly identified, it could not immediately be determined if the children studied by the AP were among those cited by Portman.
According to emails, agency memos and operations manuals obtained by AP, some under the Freedom of Information Act, the agency relaxed its procedures as the number of young migrants rose in response to spiraling gang- and drug-related crime in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
HHS bars releasing children to anyone convicted of child abuse or neglect or violent felonies like homicide and rape. The department says it recently signed a contract to open new shelters, and is strengthening its protection procedures as the number of young migrants is once again rising.
Some of the new policies were adopted in July, after prosecutors charged sponsors and their associates with forcing the teens to de-beak chickens and clean chicken coops on farms around the town of Marion. The department placed the children in substandard trailers without setting eyes on the sponsors or the environment, and only performed such home visits in less than 5 percent of cases overall from 2013 to 2015, the report said.
At the hearing, lawmakers from both parties bristled at the officials' answers, saying they weren't adequate when the lives of children had been endangered.
The panel's top Democrat, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, said she was "disgusted and angry" by the results of the investigation.
"The bottom line is when a child is admitted into our country, the United States of America should be an example for the world of how we care for those children," McCaskill said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., stopped his line of questioning and left the hearing after saying that the witnesses were "the definition of non-cooperative." Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., criticized the overly legal tenor of many of the officials' responses and asked if they understood why the senators were angry.
The panel's report says the agency still can't track whether an adult is attempting to sponsor multiple children at the same time. In addition, current policies allow sponsors to prevent children from being contacted by social workers who go to the home for a check-up visit.
The report also notes that HHS did not spend all of the money it had left in the program even though it says it was overwhelmed and lacked sufficient funding to provide services. In a letter to lawmakers in December, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell said a contingency fund is necessary to ensure children are not left at the border.
Burke reported from San Francisco.