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How much oversight do foster homes for migrant children have?

A new investigation by the Associated Press and FRONTLINE finds allegations of physical and sexual abuse for some migrant children who are moved into government-funded foster care after they are separated from their families. Jeffrey Brown talks to the AP’s Martha Mendoza about details of the allegations, who oversees the foster homes and why additional lawsuits may be forthcoming.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    We continue our coverage now of the separation of migrant families at the border.

    A new investigation by the Associated Press and PBS' "Frontline" finds allegations of physical and sexual abuse of some. These are children who are moved into government-funded foster care after being separated from their families.

    As Jeffrey Brown now tells us, the report suggests there may be more allegations and lawsuits to come.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The AP looked at 38 legal claims from families preparing to sue the federal government. In some cases, very young children were placed with foster families, where they were allegedly molested by other children.

    The allegations, many of which have not been public until now, raise questions about the government's ability to house migrant children in places beyond large shelters and crowded detention centers.

    One attorney told the AP that these cases are — quote — "the tip of the iceberg."

    Martha Mendoza is part of the reporting team for the AP and joins me now from Mountain View, California.

    Thanks for joining us.

    What kind of abuses are we talking about that are being claimed here and who are the victims?

  • Martha Mendoza:

    So, the victims range from babies to teenagers.

    And the type of abuses range from sexual molesting, to verbal abuse, or even just the dread and fear of being separated as a family, and not knowing where their loved ones were.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Tell us a little bit more about the situation of the children and their parents and the families. These are children who have been separated.

  • Martha Mendoza:

    Yes.

    So, under the administration's zero tolerance policy, when kids come into the country with their parents, they are separated. The parents go to detention, but the children become wards of the Department of Health and Human Services, which has been working to place them in residential shelters, sometimes in large detention camps.

    And the younger ones, they have tried to put them into foster programs. And these programs are somewhat like you would think of foster care, but they're also a little different. For one thing, the kids are very far away from their parents. Also, their parents don't know where they are.

    Many times, it can be weeks before they figure out where their kids are. And then these can be a foster family that maybe taking five or six kids at a time. They spend the night at a foster home, and, by day, they go to a day center, where they have different types of programs.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Well, so it's somewhat familiar with what people are familiar with the standard foster care system, but different. So who's overseeing it? Who's in charge?

  • Martha Mendoza:

    Well, it's federally funded.

    These are state-licensed foster agencies. And they are largely nonprofit. But it's unclear how much federal oversight there is checking in on how effective these and how safe these foster families are.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But the claims now are that the government agencies are responsible. Is the claims that they are being neglectful or purposeful in this?

  • Martha Mendoza:

    So the claims are that children and their parents have been deeply harmed, sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally, by these separations and by these prolonged detentions that they have faced.

    And now they are starting to sue the federal government over this damage.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And has there been a response from the various government agencies involved?

  • Martha Mendoza:

    The departments of Justice and Homeland Security, which are involved in the separations, did not respond to our requests for comments. They also have not responded to repeated requests from Congress about similar issues.

    Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for the kids, got back to us and said that they make every effort to take good care of their children when they have them in their custody.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And what about from the foster care centers or families themselves? What kind of response did you get?

  • Martha Mendoza:

    Well, Cayuga Centers is the largest federal provider of foster care. They're based in New York.

    And they told us this morning that they are very concerned about the allegations, and that they too are doing their very best to provide a safe and secure situation for these children until they are reunited with their parents or other sponsors.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Now, these, if I understand right, are the first claims of their kind to be filed.

    Tell us how this is coming about, who's bringing them, who's helping the alleged victims here, who's working with them.

  • Martha Mendoza:

    Throughout, for the past year-and-a-half, the immigrants have been supported by nonprofits, Southern Poverty Law Center, immigrant rights groups, other advocates.

    But now these lawsuits are coming in partnership with these nonprofits and some major for-profit law firms like Arnold & Porter. So these going to be some potentially powerful litigants for the federal government to be up against.

    The way the claims work is that, in order to sue the federal government, you first have to file a claim demanding a certain dollar amount. And then, after six months, if the federal government does not respond, then you can file a lawsuit.

    There is not a lot of precedent on this. This feels like the first financial consequence to taxpayers for this policy that has been in place for some time now.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But you're saying, as I quoted one of the lawyers who said to you, this is the tip — could be the tip of an iceberg. You're seeing potentially much wider implications, certainly financial implications and even more.

  • Martha Mendoza:

    Right.

    So we saw 38 claims; 3,000 families have been separated under these policies. And so even the attorneys involved in filing them said they had many more in the works.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, Martha Mendoza of the AP, thank you very much.

  • Martha Mendoza:

    Thank you.

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