HHS Inspector General Says There Were 'Thousands' More Separated Children Than Reported

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On Thursday, the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services released a damning report detailing the American government’s ineptitude to track and care for the children forcibly separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Ann Maxwell, an assistant inspector general for HHS, said on a conference call with reporters Thursday morning that her office found that “more children were separated by immigration authorities than is commonly discussed.” Maxwell said that while HHS identified 2,737 separated children as of June 2018, that number only “represented a specific subset,” and that in fact there are potentially “thousands of other children” that were separated and released by HHS.


According to the Maxwell, there was a “steep increase” in separated children that was initiated during the summer of 2017 and continued through June 26, 2018, when a federal judge ruled on Mr. L v. ICE, a class-action lawsuit brought by the ACLU opposing the Trump Administration’s separation policy. The judge in the case mandated that “unless there is a determination that the parent is unfit or presents a danger,” the children were to be reunited with their parents.

By the time the ruling had come down, however, border officials had spent the past half-year rapidly increasing the number of children separated from their parents. According to data cited from the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the report, the proportion of unaccompanied children taken in by HHS that were separated by American officials rose from 0.3 percent to 3.6 percent between “late 2016" and August 2017.


The reason that only 2,737 children were counted as having been separated was because that was the number of kids in HHS care at the time of the June 2018 court order. That is, HHS did not count, or even know, how many children had been separated and released prior to the court order—the exact number of separated children is “unknown,” per the HHS report. Multiple attempts by reporters to hone in on a ballpark figure during Thursday’s phone call were rebuffed by the agency. We do know, however, that the ORR was given custody of an additional separated 118 children between July 1 and November 7, although the report notes that ORR received the children “with limited information about the reasons for these separations, which may impede ORR’s ability to determine appropriate placements.”

The Inspector General’s office did not offer any recommendations alongside its report, though they did cite a lack of an integrated data system as a major reason for why so many children are unaccounted for. Maxwell also declined to state how many senior HHS officials were aware of the discrepancy, saying the “goal of the product is transparency” and that the report was not focused on “who knew what and when.”

The Inspector General’s office produced the report by reviewing data “compiled by ASPR and ORR in August, September, and November 2018.” Additionally, HHS looked at ORR’s tracking data of kids identified by DHS as having been separated between July to November 2018. The full report can be read below.