Congress

Official distances HHS from sexual abuse of detained migrant children allegations

HHS official quibbled with description of contractors under HHS as "HHS staff"

A boy and father from Honduras are taken into custody by U.S. Border Patrol agents near the U.S.-Mexico Border on June 12, 2018 near Mission, Texas. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

A Department of Health and Human Services official tried to distance his department from thousands of alleged sexual abuse cases of unaccompanied migrant children during intense questioning at a Tuesday hearing.

Rep. Ted Deutch grilled Commander Jonathan White about the abuse during a House Judiciary Committee hearing, but White emphasized the alleged perpetrators were contractors for the U.S. government, not staffers. White was the deputy at HHS under Secretary Alex Azar, who oversaw emergency efforts to return children separated from their parents at the border.

In each of the last four years, there have been more than 1,000 cases of detained children reporting sexual abuse by their caretakers after arriving at the southern border, according to internal documents made public for the first time Tuesday.

“With the number of allegations each year roughly breaking down to one sexual assault per week for the last three years, clearly this Administration is not equipped to keep these children safe inside their facilities,” Rep. Ted Deutch said in a statement.

The Florida Democrat released the documents during the House judiciary hearing on the Trump administration’s child separation policy Tuesday.

Watch: Deutch grills HHS on child abuse allegations

“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 “HHS staff.”

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

The Office of Refugee Resettlement under HHS transfers children apprehended at the border to nonprofits like Southwest Key Programs.

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.

“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 young children, including toddlers and babies, being brought into their care. 

White was given a chance to clarify his stance on the reports of sexual abuse by a Republican member of the committee, CNN Reported.

California Rep. Tom McClintock accused Deutch of “drive-by slander.”

“We share concern that I think everyone in this room feels. Anytime a child is abused in the care of ORR is one too many,” White said. 

 

“The vast majority of allegations prove to be unfounded when they are investigated by state law enforcement and federal law enforcement and the state licensure authorities to whom we refer them,” White continued.

 

The senior official doubled down on creating a distinction between staff contracted by the federal government and federal employees.

 

“It is important to note that I am not aware of a single instance anywhere of an allegation against the ORR federal staff for abuse of a child,” White said.

 

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