The Department of Health and Human Services lost track of nearly 1,500 migrant children it placed with sponsors in the United States, an agency official told a Senate subcommittee Thursday.
The children were taken into government care after they showed up alone at the Southwest border. Most of the children are from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, and were fleeing drug cartels, gang violence and domestic abuse.
The agency learned the 1,475 children could not be found after making follow-up calls to check on their safety, the committee was told.
The news has raised concern that the children could fall into the hands of human traffickers or be used as laborers by people posing as relatives.
“You are the worst foster parents in the world. You don’t even know where they are,” said Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. “We are failing. I don’t think there is any doubt about it. And when we fail kids, that makes me angry.”
Since the dramatic surge of border crossings in 2013, the federal government has placed more than 180,000 unaccompanied minors with parents or other adult sponsors who are expected to care for the children and help them attend school while they seek legal status in immigration court.
An AP investigation in 2016 found that more than two dozen of those children had been sent to homes where they were sexually assaulted, starved or forced to work for little or no pay. Since then, the Department Health and Human Services has boosted outreach to at-risk children deemed to need extra protection, and last year offered post-placement services to about one-third of unaccompanied minors.
But advocates say it is hard to know how many minors may be in dangerous conditions, in part because some disappear before social workers can follow up with them, and they never show up in court.
Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio gave HHS and the Department of Homeland Security until Monday to deliver a time frame for improving monitoring.
“These kids, regardless of their immigration status, deserve to be treated properly, not abused or trafficked,” said Portman, who chairs the subcommittee. “This is all about accountability.”