Separated Children Placed in Office of Refugee Resettlement Care

U.S. Department of Health and Human Service, Office of Inspector General

Separated Children Placed in Office of Refugee Resettlement Care

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In the Spring of 2018, the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) implemented a “zero-tolerance policy” for certain immigration offenses. As a result, DHS separated large numbers of alien families, with adults being held in Federal detention while their children were transferred to the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). On June 26, 2018, in a class action lawsuit, Ms. L v. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a Federal District Court ordered the Federal Government to identify and reunify separated families who met certain criteria. Given the potential impact of these actions on vulnerable children and ORR operations, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) conducted this review to determine the number and status of separated children (i.e., children separated from their parent or legal guardian by DHS) who have entered ORR care, including but not limited to the subset of separated children covered by Ms. L v. ICE.


We analyzed HHS internal data and reviewed court filings and other public documents. We also conducted multiple interviews with HHS senior leadership, agency officials, and staff.


In the summer of 2017, prior to the formal announcement of the zero-tolerance policy, ORR staff observed a steep increase in the number of separated children referred to ORR care. Officials estimated that ORR received and released thousands of separated children prior to the June 26, 2018, court order that required ORR to identify and reunify certain separated children. HHS has thus far identified 2,737 separated children who were in ORR’s care as of June 26, 2018, and whose parents meet the Ms. L v. ICE class definition. Additionally, from July 1 through November 7, 2018, ORR received at least 118 children identified by DHS as separated. However, DHS provided ORR with limited information about the reasons for these separations, which may impede ORR’s ability to determine appropriate placements.


HHS faced significant challenges in identifying separated children, including the lack of an existing, integrated data system to track separated families across HHS and DHS and the complexity of determining which children should be considered separated. Owing to these and other difficulties, additional children of Ms. L v. ICE class members were still being identified more than five months after the original court order to do so. Further, it is not yet clear whether recent changes to ORR’s systems and processes are sufficient to ensure consistent and accurate data about separated children, and the lack of detail in information received from DHS continues to pose challenges. OIG encourages continued efforts to improve communication, transparency, and accountability for the identification, care, and placement of separated children.

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