WASHINGTON — The Department of Health and Human Services placed more than a dozen immigrant children in the custody of human traffickers after it failed to conduct background checks of caregivers, according to a Senate report released on Thursday.
Examining how the federal agency processes minors who arrive at the border without a guardian, lawmakers said they found that it had not followed basic practices of child welfare agencies, like making home visits.
The Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations opened its inquiry after law enforcement officials uncovered a human trafficking ring in Marion, Ohio, last year. At least six children were lured to the United States from Guatemala with the promise of a better life, then were made to work on egg farms. The children, as young as 14, had been in federal custody before being entrusted to the traffickers.
“It is intolerable that human trafficking — modern-day slavery — could occur in our own backyard,” said Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio and the chairman of the subcommittee. “But what makes the Marion cases even more alarming is that a U.S. government agency was responsible for delivering some of the victims into the hands of their abusers.”
In addition to the Marion cases, the investigation found evidence that 13 other children had been trafficked after officials handed them over to adults who were supposed to care for them during their immigration proceedings. An additional 15 cases exhibited some signs of trafficking.
The report also said that it was unclear how many of the approximately 90,000 children the agency had placed in the past two years fell prey to traffickers, including sex traffickers, because it does not keep track of such cases.
“Whatever your views on immigration policy, everyone can agree that the administration has a responsibility to ensure the safety of the migrant kids that have entered government custody until their immigration court date,” Mr. Portman said.
In the fall of 2013, thousands of unaccompanied children began showing up at the southern border. Most risked abuse by traffickers and detention by law enforcement to escape dire problems like gang violence and poverty in Central America.
As detention centers struggled to keep up with the influx, the Department of Health and Human Services began placing children in the custody of sponsors who could help them while their immigration cases were reviewed. Many children who did not have relatives in the United States were placed in a system resembling foster care.
But officials at times did not examine whether an adult who claimed to be a relative actually was, relying on the word of parents, who, in some cases, went along with the traffickers to pay off smuggling debts.
Responding to the report, the Department of Health and Human Services said it had taken measures to strengthen its system, collecting information to subject potential sponsors and additional caregivers in a household to criminal background checks.
Mark Greenberg, the agency’s acting assistant secretary of the Administration for Children and Families, said it had bolstered other screening procedures and increased resources for minors.
“We are mindful of our responsibilities to these children and are continually looking for ways to strengthen our safeguards,” he said.