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Going Where the Children Are: Predators and the Failure of the Federal Government to Protect Immigrant Children from Them

When the notorious Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he replied, “That’s where the money is.” For sexual or labor trafficking predators seeking access to children, a current answer may be an alphabet soup mix of the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS), Health & Human Services (HHS), and that agency’s Administration for Children & Families, (ACF) and Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). ORR is charged with the resettlement of children arriving at the border unsupervised, and now with the custody of children separated from their parents when the latter are arrested at the border.
            We now know that ORR “lost track” of 1,475 children last year out of over 7,600 (minors not separated from parents, but who arrived at the border unaccompanied). The figure is the result of a survey which failed to reveal their whereabouts. We also know that, under new DHS policy, ORR is charged with at least temporary custody of children taken from their parents as an adjunct consequence of the parents’ arrests. For better or worse, ORR has tremendous power over the lives of increasing numbers of helpless children, more so under the current administration’s “get tough” guidelines.
            The issue is not that ORR should be expected to act flawlessly or work miracles. No family or foster placement can be guaranteed 100% reliable. But in the case of children either arriving at our border alone or taken from their parents, what must be understood is that they are far more vulnerable than children in almost any other conceivable situation. This vulnerability draws predators to them the way Mr. Sutton was drawn to banks.
            Most speak little or no English, possess no ability to electronically communicate, and have no money. Whatever disabilities or special needs they have are likely a mystery to their custodians. None have any legal power. Hence, they may easily be preyed upon—either through the foster system or even the “family” itself, however that’s defined—with utter impunity. A PBS documentary, for instance, avers that at least eight children were released by HHS to traffickers who enslaved them on an Ohio egg farm. As disturbing as that is, it’s likely the tip of the iceberg.
            HHS has countered that survey recipients may still be caring for the children, but didn’t respond for a number of reasons, including fear of deportation. HHS also claims that, in about 85% of the cases, the guardians who take custody of ORR children are family members to begin with. But again, given the remarkable level of vulnerability that separated, non-native children face, these claims beg two questions:
            1. 15% of 1,475 is roughly 221. By HHS numbers, these kids didn’t go to family members. So where did they go? Foster care? As E.J. Montini pointed out last week in a scathing USA Today piece, that isn’t a traditional federal function. So with what indicia of safety were they placed?
            2. Of the 1,253 remaining children, what was the nature of the “family” they were provided to? Were precautions taken to discern whether any family members (or those with access) were dangerous?
            Everything that hunts follows two paths, that of least resistance and greatest security. Child predators are no different. Knowing nothing else about the fate of the missing 1,475, we know there is in most cases an easier path to them and heightened security in harming or exploiting them. The same goes for children DHS is now pulling from arrested parents.
            Yet Trump administration leaders seem utterly unaware or unconcerned about this reality, and the awesome responsibility that accompanies caring for children in situations the administration is itself now adding to. DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, when questioned by Senator Kamala Harris last month, couldn’t say if efforts were being made to even minimize the trauma of pulling a child from a parent, and simply equated the separation of children from immigrant parents to that of American children when their parents are arrested. This comparison is either remarkably cynical or stunningly uninformed. HHS, for its part, has stated they have no legal responsibility for these children after the initial placement.
            As Americans, will we take moral responsibility?