Despite reports of rapes and other sexual assaults, federal officials refuse to divulge any information to the public about the safety of orphaned Central American children in facilities run by third-party contractors, The Daily Caller News Foundation’s Investigative Group has learned.
Charges of child abuse and sexual assault have dogged the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) since it admitted in a 2014 Freedom of Information Act response to the Houston Chronicle that there were 101 “significant incident reports” of sexual abuse of unaccompanied children in the contractor facilities.
Federal officials with ORR only inspect contracted facilities every three years and depend upon contractors to self-report any crimes. Agency spokesman Victoria Palmer told TheDCNF Friday that ORR officials don’t regularly compile sexual abuse or assault data of the immigrant children living at the facilities, stating, “the statistics you are requesting are not compiled or readily available.”
That drew a sharp rebuke from Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican and outspoken critic of the Obama administration’s secretive approach to ensuring the safety of unaccompanied immigrant children held in federally funded facilities managed by government contractors.
“It is both incomprehensible and unacceptable that ORR does not appear to be keeping statistical data about child abuse at its facilities,” Blackburn told TheDCNF Monday. “ORR must pull back the curtains on its operations and provide assurances to Congress that allegations of child abuse at their facilities have been dealt with appropriately.” Blackburn is a vice-chair of President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team.
Secrecy has been the center of ORR’s operations under President Barack Obama, which operate within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). But Palmer insisted “ORR takes very seriously its legal responsibility to care and shelter children referred by immigration authorities.”
Since 2013, at least 207,000 children have arrived at the U.S. border as “unaccompanied alien children” — ORR’s official designation for them — and are or have been in the agency’s care. But little is known outside of ORR about the conditions the children face inside the facilities.
“The entire program is shrouded in secrecy,” said James Simpson, an author and expert on refugee issues. “They don’t tell you where they are placing them. You don’t know what the process is once the children get there,” Simpson told TheDCNF.
HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell has not prosecuted a single federal employee for abuse of the immigrant children and claims ORR cannot discipline employees who work for the contractors, even when cases involve violent acts such as sexual assaults.
“There are no ORR employees currently being investigated by law enforcement for sexual misconduct or abuse involving unaccompanied children,” Burwell told Congress in a Feb. 23, 2015 letter to Blackburn, who is also vice-chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Burwell also said contract employees cannot be punished for child abuse, telling Blackburn, “Care workers in facilities for unaccompanied children are not HHS Federal employees, but employees of grantees of ORR.”
The agency relies on local police departments for any misconduct by its contractors, not the FBI, which would investigate abuse by federal employees.
Secrecy isn’t the only problem plaguing ORR, as officials there have dragged their feet on implementing mandated reforms. Congress attached language to the Violence Against Women Act in 2013, requiring ORR to “adopt national standards” to protect unaccompanied refugee children from rape and sexual attacks.
Nearly fours years later, the standards mandated by Congress have still not been issued, and ORR functions under an “interim” rule.
Even if the reforms were implemented, ORR relies on contractors to police themselves and voluntarily report abuses. “ORR requires all care providers to immediately report emergencies and significant incidents that may arise. Care providers also must report appropriate significant incidents,” Palmer told TheDCNF.
The problem is likely to get worse before it gets better since the number of unaccompanied immigrant children pouring into the U.S. is increasing dramatically.
The number of Central American children entering the U.S. without parents doubled from 28,000 in 2015 to 47,000 this year, Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson reported Nov. 29.
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