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Congress pressures immigration officials on sexual abuse allegations involving minors in custody

Senior officials at DHHS have taken offense at the use of the word ‘staff’ to describe predators

Cmdr. Jonathan D. White, U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, third from left, took offense at Rep. Ted Deutch’s description of employees who preyed on children in U.S. custody as "HHS staff." (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Cmdr. Jonathan D. White, U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, third from left, took offense at Rep. Ted Deutch’s description of employees who preyed on children in U.S. custody as "HHS staff." (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

UPDATE, 2 p.m.:  In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for HHS said officials have been “briefing Members on both sides of the aisle, in both the House of Representatives and Senate, on the allegations of sexual abuse and inappropriate sexual behavior.” The spokesperson did not name the lawmakers the agency met with.“HHS … has communicated to Congressman Deutch that we will be happy to meet with him, once he corrects the hearing record from last week and provides an apology to the dedicated men and women working tirelessly to protect and improve the lives of unaccompanied alien children in our care,” she said.

Trump administration officials overseeing the sheltering of migrant children have refused to meet with some members of Congress about recent allegations that adult employees preyed on children in their custody.

Nine days have passed since the public first learned of thousands of cases of alleged sexual misconduct in facilities supervised by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is housed under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

But senior officials have refused to meet with some Democrats to address the issue. They are demanding an apology for a semantic misstep during a high-profile hearing last week, when Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida referred to shelter workers contracted under HHS as “staff.”

HHS overlooks children apprehended at the border and transferred to the custody of nonprofits like Southwest Key Programs and BCFS.

These nonprofits have received millions in federal grants to house children, even amid reports of neglect and abuse and of the lavish compensation of executives.

Children reported sexual abuse by their caretakers after arriving at the southern border 98 times over the past two years, according to HHS data. The data only describes the nature of the sexual misconduct — whether the perpetrator was a child or an adult — when the report was relayed to the Department of Justice. One third of all of the sexual misconduct allegations reported to HHS were raised with the DOJ last year.

The internal data first came to light during a high-profile House Judiciary Committee hearing on the Trump administration’s child separation policy last week. 

But in the intervening days, HHS has rebuffed requests to meet with Congress on the issue, according to a letter from committee Democrats to ORR Acting Director Jonathan Hayes.

Hayes accused Deutch of having “impugned the integrity of hundreds of federal civil servants” in his own letter last week. 

Watch: Deutch grills HHS on child abuse allegations

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Deutch grilled U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps Cmdr. Jonathan White about the sexual abuse during the televised hearing last week.

White was the deputy at HHS under Secretary Alex Azar who oversaw emergency efforts to return children separated from their parents at the border.

“These documents tell us there is a problem with adults, employees of HHS, sexually abusing children,” Deutch said. “When you carried out the zero tolerance policy … you knew that putting thousands of kids at risk of sexual abuse would be the result. Did you discuss this issue before going forward?”

But the HHS senior official took issue with Deutch’s description of the employees who allegedly preyed on children under their supervision as “staff.”

“Representative, let me first correct an error. Those are not HHS staff in any of those allegations. That statement is false,” White said, raising his voice.

“I will make that clarification,” Deutch replied. “But it doesn’t make what happened any less horrific.”

The nonprofits that contract under HHS to house unaccompanied minors have faced new scrutiny since the Trump administration implemented its practice of separating children from parents who enter the country illegally last year. The policy has resulted in more children coming into their care, including toddlers and babies, straining resources. 

For example, HHS waived fingerprint FBI background checks for workers employed at the tent city housing unaccompanied migrant children in Tornillo, Texas, last year. The federal government contracted with the nonprofit BCFS Health and Human Services to run the facility. 

But Hayes further accused Deutch of “deliberately or negligently mischaracterizing the data,” and clarified that to say thousands of children reported sexual abuse in ORR custody is inaccurate. ORR received thousands of reports of sexual misconduct, and only a fraction of those constituted sexual abuse, according to his letter.

In turn, the lawmakers urged that Congressional oversight is needed in order to keep children safe. 

“We strongly urge you to join us as a partner in seeking accountability and reform that will resolve the unacceptable number of sexual assaults occurring in facilities housing unaccompanied minors by agreeing to a briefing to interested Members of Congress as soon as possible,” Deutch wrote Thursday, along with House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York and Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, chairperson of the Immigration and Citizenship Subcommittee.

During the hearing last week, Deutch accused HHS of not being forthcoming with data about sexual misconduct in its facilities, stating the documents released to the public last week were delivered unmarked in the middle of a large stack of papers.

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