U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the immediate past and current chairmen of the Senate Finance Committee, released the results of their bipartisan investigation into allegations of ongoing child abuse at federally-funded facilities and substandard protections provided by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) for unaccompanied migrant children.
The senators launched their investigation in the 116th Congress. After examining data largely from 2014 to 2020, the investigation found that ORR fails to conduct the basic oversight needed to ensure the safety of children in its care due to extensive record-keeping deficiencies and the lack of a clear framework for taking action when serious incidents occur.
“It’s clear from our investigation that the failures of bureaucracy over successive administrations allowed the abuse of children to continue for years. The mismanagement, the lack of oversight and the apparent lack of attention has to end. When a child ends up in the care of the American government, we cannot tolerate abuse or negligence. We need swift action by ORR to implement our recommendations in order to break this cycle of indifference and prevent any future abuse that these kids might face while in federal care,” Grassley said.
“Our investigation shows years of mismanagement and poor oversight by ORR that has exposed vulnerable kids to unacceptable risk of abuse and other dangers,” Wyden said. “Unaccompanied children have already faced so many challenges and often significant trauma during their journeys to the United States. The federal government must do all it can to protect them while they are in our care. It is critical that ORR act urgently to develop a better view of what is happening in its facilities and put systems in place that ensure the safety and well-being of all children in its care.”
During the course of the investigation, the Committee uncovered worrying irregularities and omissions in ORR’s internal data that suggest a flawed oversight system. Between Fiscal Years (FY) 2016 and 2020, ORR received 7,467 reports of sexual misconduct involving an unaccompanied migrant child, peaking at 2,716 reports in FY 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic drastically reduced the number of children coming into ORR care. In the course of examining the details of specific allegations, the Committee discovered that grantees’ and contractors’ incident reports do not reliably capture or highlight key information, such as the severity of what occurred in a particular incident, and even whether an incident involved an adult or another child.
Because ORR’s monitoring is based on individual case management records, the investigation also found that the agency is unable to track historical trends at either the facility or grantee/contractor level—including such critical data as facility security, facility safety, staff behavior, and abuse and assault (including incidents of a sexual nature). Not only does this mean that ORR fails to effectively address ongoing systemic threats to children’s well-being, but also that it is inherently incapable of quantitatively assessing grantee/contractor operations. This poses a troubling barrier to the long-term improvements in the quality of care that ORR can guarantee, as it is unable to determine whether a grantee or contractor has a history of being compliant, competent, or suitable for additional grants or contracts.
Wyden and Grassley, in response to the investigation’s findings, provided the following recommendations that ORR must take to fulfill its duty to protect the health and safety of children in its care:
• Recommendation #1: ORR should utilize the full range of its powers to compel grantees and contractors to prioritize the safety and well-being of children in their care, including financial drawdowns and the discontinuation or non-continuation of grants/contracts to providers that do not effectively safeguard children in their care.
• Recommendation #2: ORR should create a public framework grading ORR unaccompanied migrant children grantees and contractors to track and verify the quality of care they provide.
• Recommendation #3: ORR should improve guidance to grantees and contractors for significant incident reporting, to ensure consistency in how they describe and classify events.
• Recommendation #4: ORR should adopt a data management system capable of tracking and comparing across facility and grantee/contractor-level operations, including historical records of compliance, violations, and all significant incidents that have occurred.
• Recommendation #5: ORR should establish a transparent decision-making process for addressing threats to the safety of children in its care, with clear standards for how the number and severity of violations, as well as a grantee/contractor’s history, lead to particular actions by ORR.
• Recommendation #6: ORR should proactively identify and address problematic trends across facilities and grantees/contractors, rather than treat incidents as isolated episodes to be addressed through individual case management.
• Recommendation #7: ORR should improve communication and coordination with local, state, and other federal agencies involved in licensing or investigating providers that operate ORR-funded facilities.
-Senator Chuck Grassley