It’s no small task to resettle the children flowing past the nation’s borders

Homeland Security isn’t the only department dealing with an ongoing border crisis. Health and Human Services has a big job too. It’s Office of Refugee Resettlement has struggled with the task of making sure unaccompanied children are properly taken care of. It’s got a mixed record.  Federal Drive with Tom Temin got more from HHS assistant regional inspector general Nancy Bibb.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin So tell us just to start with the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Where does it live in HHS and what is it supposed to be doing?

Nancy Bibb That’s a really good question. So the Office of Refugee Resettlement is a program office that is within the Administration for Children and Families within HHS, and it manages a variety of different programs. So I can provide you a little bit more background on the Office of Refugee Resettlement as it pertains to the unaccompanied children’s program, which is what ties to our audit report.

Tom Temin Sure. So they make sure that these children that come by whatever means they get them settled in places that are safe?

Nancy Bibb Yes. In the unaccompanied children’s program, ORR is responsible for the care and the placement of unaccompanied children that have no lawful immigration status in the United States.

Tom Temin And what do they specifically do? How do the children come into the custody of that office in the first place? And then what do they do when they do get custody of these children?

Nancy Bibb So children are typically referred to ORR’s care from the Department of Homeland Security. And once the children are referred to ORR’s care, in ORR I’m referring to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. They actually fund residential care providers that are providing the temporary housing and other services to unaccompanied children that are within their custody. So that these care providers provide a variety of different services, including health care, socialization, recreation, mental health services, to name a few. And so these are through and remain in ORR’s care and custody until they are released to a parent or other sponsor within the United States. Some children may also use to be repatriated to their home country. They may obtain legal status in the United States or turn 18 years old, which at that point in time they’re transferred back to the custody of DHS. The Office of Refugee Resettlement Unaccompanied Children’s Program primarily has responsibility for the care of these children as long as they’re within their custody.

Tom Temin And safe to say they have experienced a surge in the number of children they have to deal with.

Nancy Bibb There have been periods in time where there have been surges of children that are referred to their care. Yes.

Tom Temin All right. So what were you looking for in doing this audit of their operations then? What were you trying to find out here?

Nancy Bibb So our audit examined whether or not ORR was following its policies and procedures and guidance, both when making initial placement decisions for unaccompanied children and also when transferring children between their care provider facilities. Additionally, as a part of this audit, we determined whether or not ORR was conducting adequate oversight of the transfers of unaccompanied children. So just to provide a little bit more context in regards to what an initial placement is, that is when ORR intake staff determines the appropriate care provider facility to provide the care for the child in a least restrictive setting that’s going to meet the child’s needs when they are referred from the Department of Homeland Security into ORR’s care. And when we’re talking about these subsequent transfer placements, we’re talking about transfers. And when a child is moved between one ORR care provider facility and another ORR care provider facility.

Tom Temin Got it. And they do have statutory limits on how long they can take to do this. And there are statutory requirements for the paperwork and documentation that goes along with all of these transfers. Correct.

Nancy Bibb There are some statutory requirements tied to time limits between transferring care between Department of Homeland Security and ORR custody. And then ORR has their policy guide and internal policies and procedures that give guidance on the transfer process between care provider facilities and those guidance and policy documents are what we used in conducting our audit.

Tom Temin And what did you find?

Nancy Bibb So we had a variety of different findings related to our audit. First I’ll address the findings that we had related to initial placements. And so in our review, just a little bit of background, we did a statistical sample of 70 initial placements. And looked at whether or not ORR made an appropriate decision for the care provider facility for that child to be placed in. And in that, we found that ORR didn’t make appropriate placement decisions. However, those initial placement decisions did not always happen within 24 hours during influx periods. And so that 24 hours is anORR policy guidance that the in-takes team is required to make that placement decision within 24 hours.

Tom Temin Sure. So that means that children are waiting around somewhere where it’s not optimal for them until this placement takes place. And 24 hours, that’s a long time. Some of these children are very young, right?

Nancy Bibb Some of the children placed into our custody are very young. Yes.

Tom Temin All right. We’re speaking with Nancy Bibb. She’s assistant regional inspector general for Health and Human Services. And you also found that sometimes the paperwork and documentation of what was going on wasn’t quite up to snuff also.

Nancy Bibb Yes, you’re correct. We found we did a little bit of looking at initial placements for children that had specific concerns or needs. So they went into a restrictive placement and a restrictive placement is a care provider that just has a little bit more, has a different set of guidelines rather than the basic shelter environment. And so we did find that the intakes placement checklist was not always completed accurately. And according to ORR, the issues that we found within initial placements were one tied to, you know, the number of referrals varying greatly between normal operations and during an influx and capacity issues at the care provider facilities just having enough space and.

Tom Temin But what about having enough staff?

Nancy Bibb Yes. Additionally, we found that the ORR contracted intake specialist positions were not always fully staffed during our audit period. And these are the individuals that are actually making that placement decision to determine which care provider facility a child would be placed in.

Tom Temin All right. So they have issues, space and staff and dealing with surges. What were your recommendations?

Nancy Bibb So in regards to that issue, our recommendation was for ORR to strengthen the oversight of their initial placements and ensure that that placement decision is made within 24 hours of each referral. Then we also recommended the ORR ensure that the documentation is completed for those children with special needs or concerns.

Tom Temin And HHS and the ORR pretty much accepted.

Nancy Bibb Those recommendations are in the Administration for Children and Families did concur with our recommendations in our report and in their response provided us with some corrective actions that they plan to take.

Tom Temin And in the meantime, they have hired more intake specialists. Correct.

Nancy Bibb I cannot speak to whether or not they have hired any additional intake specialist at this point in time. We have not gone back and reassess that.

Tom Temin Okay. I’m just reading in the report, they said they did. They told you they did. But you have to verify that, in other words.

Nancy Bibb Yes. As part of our audit follow up procedures, ACF will provide us with a final management determination and we will then look to determine whether or not we feel that the recommendations were implemented from the report, and we’ll look at those corrective actions at that point in time.

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