Why OIG Did This Review. Within HHS, the Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) Program serves minors who have no lawful immigration status in the United States and do not have a parent or legal guardian available in the United States to provide care and physical custody. A network of more than 100 HHS-funded care provider facilities furnish housing, food, medical care, mental health services, educational services, and recreational activities for such children until HHS can identify an appropriate sponsor (typically a parent or close relative) to take custody. In 2017 and 2018, DOJ and DHS took steps to increase enforcement of immigration laws, culminating in the spring 2018 implementation of a zero-tolerance policy for some immigration offenses. Under that policy, large numbers of families entering the United States without authorization were separated by DHS. Typically, adults were held in Federal detention while their children were placed in HHS custody and provided care through the UAC Program. On June 26, 2018, a Federal district court halted further family separations (subject to some exceptions) and ordered the Federal Government to quickly reunify separated families who met certain criteria. Given the impact of the zero-tolerance policy on vulnerable children and families, OIG conducted this review to examine challenges that HHS and care provider facilities faced in responding to the policy and carrying out the court-ordered reunification effort. We also sought to identify actions that HHS can take to improve program operations. What OIG Found. Interagency communication failures and poor internal management decisions left HHS unprepared for the zero-tolerance policy. Specifically, interagency channels for coordinating immigration policy across Federal departments were not used to notify HHS of the zero-tolerance policy in advance. Meanwhile, key senior HHS officials did not act on staff’s repeated warnings that family separations were occurring and might increase. HHS’s lack of planning for the possibility of larger-scale family separation left the Department unable to provide prompt and appropriate care for separated children when the zero-tolerance policy was implemented. Without sufficient bed capacity, HHS could not always place separated children in care provider facilities within 72 hours (as required by law), leaving hundreds inappropriately detained in Department of Homeland Security (DHS) custody. Care provider facilities facing an unexpected increase in young, separated children encountered numerous challenges to meeting their unique needs. Further, because no procedures or systems had been established to track separated families across HHS and DHS for later reunification, HHS struggled to identify separated children. HHS also experienced challenges coordinating the reunification effort under overlapping court-imposed requirements. Additionally, OIG found that care provider facilities faced significant operational challenges at every stage of the reunification process. Facilities encountered difficulties locating and communicating with parents in DHS or Department of Justice (DOJ) custody as well as determining whether parents and children could be safely reunified. Facilities also reported that guidance and directives from HHS related to separated children were poorly communicated. HHS has taken steps to improve tracking of separated children, but the procedures rely on manual processes that are vulnerable to error. HHS also continues to experience difficulties obtaining information from DHS about parents’ criminal backgrounds, impeding HHS’s ability to provide appropriate care and identify sponsors to whom children can be safely released.
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