Sept. 19 (UPI) -- U.S. officials have lost track of nearly 1,500 migrant children this year, prompting a Senate investigation and concerns the children could be sold into trafficking.
An estimated 11,254 migrant children were placed with sponsor families after entering the country illegally this year. Many spent time in shelters before being placed with a family. Of those, the Department of Health and Human Services has lost track of 1,488 children, a Senate investigation found.
The findings of the Senate investigation were released Tuesday night. The children cited in the report follow another 1,475 migrant children who went missing after being placed with sponsors last year.
Senate lawmakers on Tuesday introduced a bipartisan bill to clarify the government's role and to ensure the safety of migrant children.
The Responsibility for Unaccompanied Minors Act requires the government to keep better track of migrant children and make sure they appear for court proceedings.
The Department of Health and Human Services has placed more than 135,000 unaccompanied minors with adult sponsors in the United States since 2014 while they await immigration hearings.
Tuesday's bill adds 225 immigration judge teams to reduce the backlog. Also, if migrant children fail to appear for hearings, the sponsorship for that family could be terminated and the state would resume custody. The legislation also requires federal officials to notify state welfare agencies when an unaccompanied minor has been placed with a sponsor.
"Children who risk their lives to make a dangerous journey in pursuit of asylum shouldn't then have to worry about falling victim to human trafficking or being handed over to abuse or neglectful adults in the United States," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn, in a statement.
In one case from 2016, eight children were mistakenly placed with human traffickers who forced them to work on an egg farm in Marion, Ohio. Federal officials failed to do proper background checks on them.
The Department of Health and Human Services late Tuesday sought to clarify the Senate's findings.
"As communicated to members of Congress multiple times, these children are not 'lost,'" HHS spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley said. "Their sponsors -- who are usually family members and in all cases have been vetted for criminality and ability to provide for them -- simply did not respond or could not be reached when this voluntary call was made."