A watchdog group has accused the Health and Human Services Department of poor oversight leading to children working in unsafe and illegal conditions within the United States.
The agency is in charge of sheltering unaccompanied migrant children after they cross the border, as well as finding homes for unaccompanied minors.
The Government Accountability Project, a group representing federal whistleblowers, submitted a report to HHS and Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin on Wednesday that found the agency’s case management system may have failed to match all the children with thoroughly vetted sponsors, and has failed to keep track of them properly after they left government care.
There were other concerns raised about living conditions, the spread of COVID-19, incompetent management, and sexual misconduct.
Border crossings sharply increase
According to NBC, the whistleblowers are federal workers who were detailed to work at an emergency site in Fort Bliss, Texas in spring and summer of 2021 when the number of migrant children crossing the border without a parent or guardian rose sharply.
The Biden Administration claimed to have since improved the case management process; however, the whistleblower says the problems they saw in 2021 may have allowed children to go into homes where they would be allowed or forced to work in unsafe environments, such as slaughterhouses.
“These concerns included, for example, the lack of a coordinated case management tracking system, resulting in hundred of children languishing at the facility for weeks without ever talking with a case manager; egregious error in discharge procedures, with some children listed as having been discharged despite still being on site in HHS custody,” the report said.
The whistleblowers also claimed that there was not a good system to call attention to problems they noticed, stating in the report that “many children suffered in silence, and when whistleblowers raised concerns, they were ignored.”
Earlier this year the Department of Labor found a 44 percent increase in the number of children illegally employed over the past year. It also revealed it had already found 4,474 children working illegally.
There was also an 87 percent increase seen in fines against employers for violations — companies have been hit $6.6 million total in fines. Currently the maximum fine for hiring underage workers is $15,138, which advocates have said is not high enough to deter companies from employing children.
This data was released around the same time 16-year-old Duvan Tomas Perez died at the Mar-Jac Poultry processing plant after being ensnared in a machine he had been cleaning. Perez, who immigrated to the U.S. from Guatemala in 2017, was not permitted to work at the poultry plant as it is considered “particularly hazardous,” meaning it is a violation of child labor laws for anyone under 18 to work there.
Mar-Jac blamed the tragedy on a tight labor market and said they had been relying on an outside staffing company to fill positions, but would ensure that the error never happened again.
The HHS issued a report earlier this year that revealed 344 unaccompanied migrant children were released to live with non-relative sponsors that were hosting three or more unaccompanied children. Currently HHS has more than 10,000 migrant children in its care due to the number of children crossing unaccompanied has increased.
According to NBC, it was recently found by the inspector general for HHS that staff at Fort Bliss lacked training and safeguard were removed, which “potentially increased children’s risk of release to unsafe sponsors.”
HHS has expanded its case management system, adding additional check-ins for children who are placed with non-related sponsors. However, the Government Accountability Project told HHHS that it needs more reforms in order to ensure children are placed in safe homes.
“Oversight and protection for immigrant children and non-citizen agricultural workers demands reform,” the report said.