Democratic-controlled House To Start Oversight Hearings on Trump Family Separation Agenda

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President Trump. What kind of cruel man separates children from their parents? Photo: Gage Skidmore 
 
Tomorrow, Feb.7, the new House Democratic majority will hold its first hearing on the inhumane Trump family separation policy in the Energy and Commerce Committee, an opportunity to finally hold the administration accountable for family separation and its lingering effects. 
 
Then, on Feb. 12, the House Judiciary Committee will also hold a hearing on family separation with several government witnesses directly involved in decision-making and implementation of the policy.
 
“There are so many questions that the Trump administration has been avoiding, but the hearings this week and next mark an end to the silence and secrecy surrounding Trump’s family separation policies,” said Ur Jaddou, the Director of DHS Watch, a project of America’s Voice.  “Americans still have searing images in their minds of desperate parents and children fleeing violence and the treatment they received from U.S. authorities, and this is the start of the accountability process to understand what’s happening, the damage being done, and how we may correct and prevent it in the future.”
 
Although the broad-based family separation policy of last summer has been paused and many months have since passed, this crisis is far from over:  83 children remain separated from this summer’s crisis more than six months after being ordered by a federal court to reunite them; We only recently learned that thousands more were separated and the government has very little information on these separations; Family separation continues in certain circumstances under dubious standards;Tracking to ensure appropriate care and communication between government agencies and between separated parents and children is still not complete. 
 
In just the last few months, various government watchdog and accountability organizations -- the General Accountability Office (GAO), DHS Inspector General (DHS IG), and the HHS Inspector General (HHS IG) -- have released reports describing multiple failures in planning and implementation, providing some answers to questions the previous Republican-controlled House refused to ask of the Trump administration.  
 
“These government reports are just the beginning and, in many cases, raise even more questions about what happened, what continues to happen, and what needs to be done to end this crisis and prevent its recurrence in the future,” Jaddou. 
 
Here are just some of the issues and questions that could be explored in the hearings.
 
Becoming increasingly aware of family separations at the border, the American Academy of Pediatrics began voicing its concern to DHS regarding the health and welfare of separated children as early as January 2018, many months before the implementation of broad-scale family separation over the summer of 2018.  But even before that, any child development expert could have pointed to evidence dating as far back as WWII on the harm of family separation. Later, the American Academy of Pediatrics,  American College of Physicians, and American Psychiatric Association all clearly stated their opposition to the family separation policy.  Given the lack of planning as noted by the GAO, it is unclear whether any experts within the government were consulted and whether letters from the AAP and others were even considered by Trump administration decision-makers.    
 
Was the Trump administration aware of the harm of family separation?  If so, why did the administration proceed in light of the harm? If not, did anyone seek the advice of any governmental experts inside or outside the government before making the decision to separate children?  If not, why not?
 
The Trump family separation policy was implemented without planning or notice to officials who could have planned for it. The GAO found: Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) officials we interviewed said the agencies did not plan for the potential increase in the number of children separated from their parent or legal guardian as a result of the Attorney General’s April 2018 “zero tolerance” memo.
 
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.
 
Basic principles of good governance require that before a major new policy is implemented, especially one involving the health and welfare of children, serious plans should be prepared for implementation and consequences of the policy.Did anyone in the Trump administration make any plans to minimize the harm of family separation, including through training of officers engaged in the separation and temporary care of children in CBP custody, how to address serious health and mental concerns of separated children and parents, how to keep parents and children in communication with each other, and any other plans?
 
DHS and HHS did not have systems to track separated families before the “zero tolerance” memo was implemented and still do not have effective tracking systems. According to both the GAO and the HHS IG, DHS and HHS lacked integrated systems to track separated families.  Therefore, HHS was often unaware that a child in their custody was separated from a parent and parents often spent weeks and sometimes months searching for their child.  Furthermore, both the GAO and HHS IG noted that although some fixes have been implemented, many challenges remain.
 
What were the challenges that DHS, HHS, and families faced in remaining in communication due to failures to appropriately track families? Were there any systems in place to track families when the policy was first implemented? Have any fixes been made and what challenges remain?  How will those challenges be addressed?
 
Unnecessary family separations continue today under dubious standards and with limited information flowing from DHS to HHS, who is entrusted with the care of separated children. According to the HHS IG, ORR received “at least 118 children separated by DHS...from July 1 through November 7, 2018” after the Trump family separation policy supposedly ended.  They noted that from a child welfare perspective, some of the separations may not be justified.  The HHS IG report found: When a proposed sponsor --including a parent-- has a criminal history, ORR policy is to evaluate the severity and type of crime and the length of time that has passed since the criminal act, along with any mitigating factors. ORR officials and staff noted that from a child welfare perspective, not all criminal history rises to a level that would preclude a child from being placed with his or her parent.
 
Furthermore, the HHS IG found that HHS often receives these separated children with little information on the reason for separation, impeding the ability for HHS “to determine the appropriate placement for a child….ORR officials stated that when DHS provided insufficiently detailed explanations for a child’s separation, ORR staff would contact DHS for followup information…[but] DHS did not always respond....”
 
What standards and protocols are used when children are separated from parents? Were child welfare and family law experts consulted when those standards and protocols were developed? Is there a process for parents to appeal separation decisions that may not be justified?  
 
DHS Watch is a project of America’s Voice. For more information, visit DHSWatch.org
 
 

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