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Why it was so difficult for HHS to reunite separated migrant families

A new watchdog report reveals troubling details about how the U.S. government handled the separation of migrant families as a result of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. The litany of failures includes communication breakdown, lack of planning and insufficient care. Lisa Desjardins talks to Ann Maxwell, assistant inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return now to our ongoing coverage of the southern border and immigration.

    A new federal government watchdog report lays out disturbing findings about how the government handled the separation of migrant families following the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy last year.

    As Lisa Desjardins tells us, this centers on the agency tasked with caring for the children, the Department of Health and Human Services.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Judy, the report outlines a litany of failures within HHS. They kept children and parents separated for weeks and months longer than necessary.

    The report depicts a complete breakdown in communications and planning within the agency, as well as with the rest of government, including no warning when the Trump administration triggered this situation.

    Numerous alarms were raised by front-line staff, but ignored by senior officials. All of that led to serious problems in caring for the children.

    The report comes from the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services.

    Ann Maxwell is the assistant inspector general, and she joins me now.

    A lot of work your staff did on this. Thank you for talking us to.

    First of all, your report lays out problems almost at every juncture. I want the look at one way you look at this. First, there were problems in finding the parents, problems in communicating with the parents, and then problems in transporting the children.

    How do you see this scope of what went wrong?

  • Ann Maxwell:

    Well, it starts with the fact that the department wasn't prepared, right?

    As you said in you opening, the department didn't have any advance warning. And because of that, there was no planning for this event to happen. So, as you said, the care provider facilities, where these children were housed and cared for, didn't prepare for the spike in separated children.

    And they, as a result, had all of these challenges that they faced throughout every single step of the reunification process.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Let's start with some specifics.

    In particular, it seems like one of the longest-lasting problems is with in just finding the parents, making sure they could establish contact. Your report has this quote from one of the — e-mails to a DHS official, writing from HHS: "No, we do not have any linkages from parents to unaccompanied children, except for a handful." They write: "We have a list of parent alien numbers, but no way to link them to the children."

    Another person also told your staff that it was easier at one point to locate people in rural Guatemala than within our own detention system.

    Take us through exactly the difficulty in finding the correct parent for the correct child.

  • Ann Maxwell:


    So you bring up two really important issues in our report. Both are tied back to the lack of advance planning. The first is, because there was no advance planning, there was no linkages, as you said, between the information at HHS that had information about children and the information at DHS about parents.

    So, they weren't even able to identify at the outset who was actually separated. Once they were actually trying to reunify these children, they were then trying to find the parents in DHS custody.

    And, as you said, we had some instances where they called each and every day trying to locate parents, and were unsuccessful getting through to try and locate that parent.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's another amazing moment in your report.

    I want to read this from page 25.

    The facility — this is a facility caring for children. One of the facility directors writes: "That facility called the DHS detention facility center every day seeking the parents of an 11-year-old child. They could not reach anyone at the detention facility, and that child cried every day."

    There was also a block in connecting with ICE, because those people trying to assess whether this parent was ready to reunify had to spend a few hours talking to them. But each person in detention only got 10 minutes to talk on the phone. They spent it with their child.

    Was this a systematic issue, or was this just not making it a priority to make these reunifications happen?

  • Ann Maxwell:

    So, it's important to go back to that place in time, in that there was an enormous spike in separated children that was brought on by the zero tolerance policy.

    Before that, we heard that separating children from their families was relatively rare. So, the system was just unprepared for this enormous, immediate spike in separated children. And the facilities and the department were working to try and figure out new processes and procedures to care for these children, to make sure they had contact with their parents, and then, ultimately, to reunify them when the court ordered them to do so.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And then let's take — sort of the last step. The children are ready to be reunified. They're going to reunify — reunification centers.

    But your report talks about how often those kids would be in vans outside of the center for hours, sometimes having to stay in that area for days, staffers sleeping in shifts because they were waiting for their turn to reunify.

    My bigger question, as you talked to HHS officials, what kind of responsibility were they taking for what happened? Why is it they were not ready for this?

  • Ann Maxwell:

    Well, the answer is probably pretty complicated.

    But it has to do with two main things we talk about in our report. One is that the — there's a number of interagency channels that are designed specifically to coordinate immigration across the federal government, and those were not used to warn HHS in advance.

    So, there were not warnings that HHS was given. So, they were caught unprepared. But, also, there were warnings coming up from staff they didn't take advantage of and largely dismissed. And so that's why our recommendation is to make sure that, as the department moves forward, that they are centering child priorities and interests in all of their decision-making, both in their internal decision-making, as well as their interagency decision-making.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And HHS has accepted all of your recommendations, but they point out that they still have to use a manual process, taking notes in each case, to connect child and parent.

  • Ann Maxwell:

    That's right.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Does that seem like it will be sufficient?

  • Ann Maxwell:

    It doesn't. And we have a recommendation to correct that.

    So they have made some strides in being able to identify the children who are currently being separated. But it is still a multistep, manual process to make the information clear about which child has actually been separated.

    We recommend that they improve that system, automate that system, so we can be sure that we can identify separated children to make sure they get appropriate care and then reunite with their parent, if appropriate.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    So important to keep following this.

    Ann Maxwell of the Inspector General's Office of HHS, thank you.

  • Ann Maxwell:

    Thank you.

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