EL PASO, Texas, Jan. 17 (UPI) -- Federal health inspectors said Thursday the Trump administration's practice of separating migrant children from their families started earlier and involved thousands more children than previously known.
On a conference call with reporters, auditors from the Office of the Inspector General at the Department of Health and Human Services could not say precisely how many children the Department of Homeland Security separated from their parents, but reported a sharp uptick between late 2016 and August 2017.
"More children and over a longer period of time were separated by immigration authorities and referred to HHS for care than is commonly discussed in the public debate," said Ann Maxwell, assistant inspector general for evaluation and inspections.
Federal auditors found that family separation began a year before the policy became public in spring 2018 and that the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is run by HHS, "received and released thousands of separated children" prior to a federal judge's order to halt the practice and reunite parents with children in late June 2018.
The report provides data from ORR about "unaccompanied alien child" intakes: "The proportion of separated children rose from approximately 0.3 percent of all UAC intakes in late 2016 to 3.6 percent by August 2017."
"How many more children were separated is unknown, by us and HHS, given the significant challenges HHS faced in identifying separated children," Maxwell said.
What's commonly known is that the federal government began separating families at the border as part of it's zero-tolerance policy for illegal border crossings between April and June 2018. For three months, Border Patrol agents separated almost 3,000 children from their parents because they were going to be prosecuted for illegally entering the United States at a place other than a port of entry.
A public outcry energized an existing lawsuit before a federal judge in California, who ordered the government to stop separating families and to reunite children with their parents.
That lawsuit created a list of children separated from their families at the border. However, government officials kept including more and excluding other children from that list until Dec. 18, five months later.
Federal auditors put 200 investigators to work on children placed in ORR care, visiting multiple government-run facilities. They found that in the summer of 2017, a year before the zero-tolerance policy was announced, ORR employees began to notice "a steep increase in the number of children who had been separated from a parent or guardian" by Homeland Security, according to the report, Separated Children Placed in Office of Refugee Resettlement Care.
Customs and Border Patrol officials in the El Paso, Texas, region implemented "policies resulting in increased family separations" between July and November 2017, the report released Thursday said.
UPI reported in July 2018 that the federal government used El Paso to pilot zero-tolerance prosecutions and family separations. The auditors' report found that the pilot project in El Paso resulted in 281 children being separated from their families.
The auditors also found that HHS computer systems could not be used to track children separated from their families, which complicated efforts to reunite them. As early as 2016, ORR employees began to use informal methods, such as an Excel spreadsheet, to try to keep track of the children.
"Because the tracking systems in use at that time were informal and designed for operational purposes rather than retrospective reporting," auditors wrote, "ORR was unable to provide a more precise estimate or specific information about these children's placements (for example, whether the children were released to sponsors who were relatives, sponsors who were non-relatives, foster care, etc.)."
Auditors also provided details about some of the steps ORR has taken to improve its tracking of separated children. ORR has "modified its online case management system to include an indicator that staff can use to record that a child was separated," the report stated.
This year, OIG intends to release a series of reports about children in the custody of ORR.