Even Trump’s Own HHS Officials Think Child Separation Was Horrible

Screenshot: PBS Newshour (Twitter)

Speaking today at a congressional committee hearing, one of President Donald Trump’s top Department of Health and Human Services officials admitted to what pretty much anyone with a heart and a brain already knows: That the administration’s policy of separating immigrant children from their parents was a cruel, unnecessary move that will leave lasting damage on families for years to come.

Speaking before the House’s Energy and Commerce Committee Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Jonathan White, former Deputy Director of HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement—he currently serves in a different HHS office—stated unequivocally that he believed the Trump administration’s family separation policy was ill-advised. He also said the effects of the policy will be felt for years to come.

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“The consequences of separation for many children will be lifelong,” White told California Rep. Raul Ruiz, when asked about the effects of toxic stress on children who had been separated from their families.

“Separation of parents is a traumatic event, and has the potential for those psychological consequences,” White, a clinical social worker, added.

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White, who introduced his testimony on Thursday by explaining that he’d served in HHS through three different presidential administrations, added that although he was not a part of the White House’s decision to implement the family separation policy, he would have emphatically advised against it had he been consulted.

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Asked by Kentucky Republican Rep. Brett Guthrie whether he would have advised the administration to carry out a family separation plan, White went even further. “Neither I nor any career person in ORR would ever have supported such a policy proposal,” White said.

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While White’s claim that none of the career employees at ORR would have been in favor of pulling immigrant children away from their families, his boss at the time, former ORR director Scott Lloyd, was a right wing hardline Trump appointee who had little experience actually managing immigration issues. He did, however, take a special interest in doing everything in his power to prevent undocumented teen girls from getting abortions—going so far as to demand a weekly spreadsheet of teens under his office’s custody who’d requested access to reproductive health care.

Lloyd has since been reassigned to the HHS Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives, where he’s a senior adviser.

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After initially denying that any sort of family separation was taking place, the Trump administration quietly drew down the program amidst a deluge of criticism. This past October, however, the White House reportedly considered re-instituting the policy. Meanwhile, according to an Office of the Inspector General report on the program published last month, the full extent of the program may is currently “unknown.”

“Pursuant to a June 2018 Federal District Court order, HHS has thus far identified 2,737 children in its care at that time who were separated from their parents,” the report said. “However, thousands of children may have been separated during an influx that began in 2017, before the accounting required by the Court, and HHS has faced challenges in identifying separated children.”

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In his prepared testimony on Thursday, White said that “our program’s mission is a child welfare mission, and we seek to serve the best interest of each individual child.” To that end, he claimed that “we have done our best as a department to achieve that goal.”

It seems pretty clear that their “best” is not nearly good enough.

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Rafi Schwartz

Senior writer. When in doubt he'll have the soup.