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Pallone and DeGette Seek Immediate Answers from Azar on Alarming Reports of Abuse of Immigrant Children

Jul 11, 2019
Press Release
Committee Leaders Want Information from ORR of Troubling Incidents Involving Children at DHS Facilities Which ORR Providers Are Required to Report

Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) and Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chair Diana DeGette (D-CO) sent a letter to Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar today urgently requesting answers to a series of questions following alarming reports of abuse of immigrant children while in U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody.

The Democrats’ inquiry follows up on new reporting on disturbing allegations detailed in nearly 30 Significant Incident Reports (SIRs) prepared by HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) providers that are responsible for caring for the children after they are transferred from CBP custody.  The reports describe extremely poor treatment of the children by CBP agents, including at least one allegation of sexual assault, dangerous overcrowding, illegally prolonged detention, and retaliation against children by CBP officials.

“HHS is given care and custody of unaccompanied children because it has child welfare expertise and it can provide a safe and appropriate environment for children,” Pallone and DeGette wrote to Secretary Azar.  “Proper reporting of significant incidents that occur both inside and outside of ORR care play a crucial role in protecting unaccompanied children.” 

Under ORR’s policy guide, ORR-funded care providers are required to report incidents affecting a child’s health, well-being, and safety to ORR.  These incidents are referred to as “significant incidents” and can range in severity from an argument between two children to physical altercations or sexual assaults.  These incidents can occur inside or outside of ORR care—including while a child is in DHS custody—and are reported by care providers through SIRs.  

In cases of allegations of sexual abuse or sexual harassment—including those that occurred within Department of Homeland Security (DHS) custody—ORR providers must alert Child Protective Services, the state licensing agency, and law enforcement immediately upon learning of the allegation.  Under ORR’s policy guide, care providers must remain informed of and track any investigations that result from reports of sexual abuse and harassment, and they must cooperate with all investigating authorities.

The Democrats continued, “In order to assess allegations of abuse of unaccompanied children that occurred in DHS custody prior to the children being transferred to ORR, as well as the actions HHS took to respond to those allegations, we are seeking information from you.”

As part of their inquiry, Pallone and DeGette are requesting answers to a series of questions posed to Secretary Azar by July 25, 2019, including:

  • In the last 12 months, how many SIRs has ORR received alleging physical abuse, sexual abuse, verbal abuse, child neglect, and/or other abuse of unaccompanied children that occurred in DHS custody prior to the child being transferred to ORR custody?  Of those incidents, how many alleged the abuse or neglect was by DHS personnel (including DHS contractors)?
  • Were all of the incidents involving alleged abuse or neglect in DHS custody reported to Child Protective Services, state licensing agencies, and law enforcement as required by ORR’s policies?
  • After an allegation of physical or sexual abuse of an unaccompanied child that occurred in DHS custody is investigated by the proper authorities, what additional actions does ORR take to address the allegations? 
  • In light of these and other reports concerning conditions at CBP holding facilities, what steps has ORR taken to proactively offer assistance or advice to DHS to ensure that children in the government’s custody are given all appropriate care?

Full letter to Secretary Azar HERE.