HHS: In Newly Released Audit Report, HHS Announces New Accountability Team, Additional Efforts to Protect the Safety and Well-being of Unaccompanied Children

Friday, June 2, 2023

Executive Summary:

  • HHS internal audit of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) sponsor vetting and placement processes for unaccompanied children.
  • The audit affirmed ORR’s adherence to program policies and procedures.
  • HHS announced additional efforts to enhance child safety, including a new Program Accountability team within ORR to assess and address child exploitation risks.
  • The audit is part of HHS and the U.S. Department of Labor’s efforts to crack down on child labor exploitation.
  • The audit focused on case reviews of children released in 2021 and 2022 to non-relative sponsors who sponsored three or more children.
  • As part of the post-audit actions, HHS aims to offer Post-Release Services to 100% of discharged children by FY25, contingent on funding and capacity.

Unedited Press Release Text:

Team Will Be Responsible for Assessing and Addressing Potential Child Exploitation Risks

Audit Found HHS Adhered to Program Policies and Procedures Designed to Meet or Exceed Statutory Requirements When Placing Unaccompanied Children with Vetted Sponsors

Today, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), released the results of an internal audit – PDF of its Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) sponsor vetting and placement processes for unaccompanied children. The audit found that ORR adhered to its program policies and procedures designed to meet or exceed statutory requirements in the placement of unaccompanied children with a vetted sponsor.

In the audit report, HHS announced additional efforts to protect the safety and well-being of unaccompanied children, including a new Program Accountability team in ORR that will be responsible for assessing and addressing potential child exploitation risks associated with the unaccompanied children program. The new team will play a key role in working with an outside entity to conduct an in-depth review of vetting and placement processes across all sponsor categories.

“Every one of us owes a child our care and protection, regardless of circumstance and without exception. When it comes to the temporary custody and subsequent placement with vetted sponsors of unaccompanied children, HHS takes its responsibility seriously,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra. “The audit released today confirms that ORR has worked hard to provide unaccompanied children, especially those who have experienced significant trauma, the care and attention they deserve. ORR works just as hard on its placement and sponsor vetting processes, under which most unaccompanied children are placed in the custody of a parent or close relative. We will continue to do our part to protect the safety and well-being of unaccompanied children, including coordinating with the Department of Labor and other partners to further crack down on child labor. We expect employers and companies to do their part and follow the law regarding child labor.”

The audit is part of a multi-pronged, interagency effort by HHS and the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) to protect children and crack down on child labor exploitation. The audit was conducted by a multidisciplinary team within ORR – including child welfare experts, policy advisors, program analysts, and program management – focused on compliance with statutory requirements (the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act or TVPRA) and program policies and procedures. The audit focused on case reviews of children released in 2021 and 2022 to non-relative sponsors who sponsored three or more children. ORR utilized these criteria because it determined that doing so would ensure the audit was focused on cases of highest potential area of concern.

Under TVPRA, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is required to transfer a child who arrives unaccompanied to the U.S. to HHS’s custody within 72 hours, absent exceptional circumstances. Once HHS receives custody of an unaccompanied child, the Department is responsible for caring for the safety and well-being of the child and placing the child with a thoroughly vetted sponsor (usually a family member) while the child awaits immigration proceedings. HHS’s custody ends when a child is released to the vetted sponsor. Health and safety concerns that may arise after the placement of the child are thereafter addressed by the appropriate authorities in the community of the sponsor.

Findings from the Audit

Vetting and Release Processes

  • ORR has established multiple safeguards in its vetting and release processes through policy guidance that meet and exceed the statutory requirements under the TVPRA. The audit found:
    • Assessment Process: Full adherence to policies in the ORR UC Program Policy Guide regarding child and sponsor assessments and interviews. 
    • Home Studies: Full compliance in conducting home studies required by federal law and 98.3% adherence in conducting additional home studies pursuant to ORR policies, which expand upon those situations requiring home study under statute.
    • Fingerprints: Fingerprint checks were completed in accordance with the ORR UC Program Policy Guide, with 99.2% completed within 72 hours of receiving the Authorization of Release of Information and Sponsor Identification in adherence with ORR’s procedures. Of note, there is no specific statutory requirement for sponsor fingerprinting.
    • Post-Release Services Referral: 98.8% adherence to ORR UC Program Policy regarding referrals for post release services, which exceeds the statutory requirements for follow up services. 

Post-Release Follow-Up Processes   

  • Federal law mandates follow-up services for children whose cases required a home study in situations specified by Congress. ORR goes beyond this mandate by providing in its policy that Safety and Well-Being calls are attempted for all children released. This audit demonstrates that ORR adheres to this policy.
    • ORR attempted and documented all Safety and Well-Being calls (three calls on three separate days for as many phone numbers that ORR has for the child and sponsor) as prescribed by ORR policy. Further, 86.6% were conducted within the 30 to 37-day timeframe called for in ORR’s policies and procedures.
    • Out of the cases reviewed, the child was reached in 66% of cases and the sponsor was reached in 84% of cases.  

Caretaker Changes

The audit yielded additional findings that, while not tied to adherence to statute or program policies and procedures, are informative for further ORR program development.

  • Though ORR’s sponsor vetting policies and procedures were followed, some children experienced challenges or caretaker changes following discharge from ORR care. When a child is placed with a sponsor, ORR’s custody of that child ends. Therefore, placement issues that arise are referred to child protective services (CPS) and/or local authorities, as appropriate.
    • Out of the 172 cases reviewed, 34 children reported caretaker changes. Twelve of these cases were referred to CPS of which six, including four siblings placed with one sponsor and an additional two children placed with another sponsor, were removed from the home by CPS.
    • Ten children left their sponsor to be with a parent, fourteen left their sponsor to be with other close relatives, three left their sponsor to be with non-relatives, and one 17-year-old went to live with an adult partner.

Next Steps 

In addition to releasing the audit results, HHS announced that it will enhance ORR services and supports – as part of its coordination with DOL – to help crack down on U.S. employers and companies violating child labor laws. This includes:  

  • Establishing a Program Accountability team within the ORR Director’s office. Launching within the next 120 days, this new team will focus on identifying and mitigating attempted fraud, abuse, and exploitation in the Unaccompanied Children (UC) Program. The new team will conduct a thorough assessment of potential risks associated with the program, identify how they are currently being mitigated, and develop a plan to address the identified risks. The team will also work with the UC Training and Technical Assistance team to bolster fraud prevention resources.
  • Continuing ORR’s evaluation of an expanded list of factors that case managers must consider as part of the sponsor vetting process when a potential sponsor is seeking to sponsor multiple children.
  • Working with an outside entity over the next 6 to 12 months to conduct additional, in-depth reviews of random samples of cases stratified by sponsor category. Reviews will focus on compliance with statutory requirements and program policies and procedures related to the sponsor vetting process. By reviewing all sponsor categories, HHS can identify any notable trends and implement appropriate mitigation and/or response strategies.
  • Strengthening ORR’s data collection on child safety and well-being post-release, to standardize reporting and sync Post-Release Services data with the UC Portal.
  • Encouraging interagency partners and community partners to further support and provide services for children after release from ORR care inasmuch as ORR lacks statutory authority to provide more than voluntary follow-up services for these children.
  • Continuing to actively work on expanding Post-Release Services. Contingent on funding and capacity, HHS will work toward its goal of offering Post-Release Services to 100% of discharged children by FY25. While HHS’s custodial responsibility ends when a child is released from HHS care, Post-Release Services offers the most significant opportunity available to HHS, under current authorities, to check on a child’s safety and well-being after release.

These measures build on actions HHS and DOL announced earlier this year to increase their efforts to thoroughly vet sponsors of migrant children, investigate child labor violations, and hold companies accountable.


SOURCE: https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2023/06/02/in-newly-released-audit-report-hhs-announces-new-accountability-team-additional-efforts-protect-safety-well-being-unaccompanied-children.html

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