More than 4,500 unaccompanied migrant children reported suffering sexual abuse while in U.S. custody over the last four years, according to internal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) documents released Tuesday by Democratic Florida Rep. Ted Deutch. Allegations against staff members working with the Unaccompanied Alien Children program included attempted relationship-forming with, showing pornography to, and forcible sexual touching of the minors.
Deutch brought the documents forward during a House hearing on Trump’s “zero tolerance” family separation policy. “I am deeply concerned with documents that have been turned over by HHS that record a high number of sexual assaults on unaccompanied children in the custody of the Office of Refugee and Resettlement ,” Deutch said at the hearing. “Together, these documents detail an environment of systemic sexual assaults by staff on unaccompanied children.”
The reports of abuse—which were gathered between October 2014 and July 2018—have caused some confusion to readers, as it’s unclear how the numbers add up. While the HHS’ Office of Refugee and Resettlement received 4,556 complaints in the four-year period, the Department of Justice received only 1,303. While all Department of Justice reports are also recorded by the HHS, not all of the HHS reports are recorded by the Department of Justice, which has lead many to believe that the overall figures are rather conservative.
The unaccounted-for disparity in numbers is a testament to the dangerous lack of organization and attention provided to the care of minors in custody in the Unaccompanied Alien Children program. As Democratic California Rep. Lou Correa told CBS News, “the gravity here is a systematic concealment of children being sexually abused, children being exposed to those kinds of acts.”
HHS spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley addressed the reports in a statement, saying the safety of minors is a “top concern.” “These are vulnerable children in difficult circumstances, and ORR fully understands its responsibility to ensure that each child is treated with the utmost care,” she told Axios. “When any allegations of abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect are made, they are taken seriously and ORR acts swiftly to investigate and respond,” Oakley said.
Meanwhile, acting director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement Jonathan Hayes accused Deutch of fake news, considering only 178 of the reports received by the Department of Justice involved staff-on-minor abuse. And even then, “none of the allegations involved ORR federal staff,” Hayes said in Thursday statement. “These allegations were all fully investigated and remedial action was taken where appropriate.”
If Hayes is worried about the potential character assassination of some of his child-prison guards, perhaps he should concern himself less with demanding an apology and more with making sure the proper channels of communication are put in place to ensure these reports are effectively specific and concrete. On top of that, Hayes is only disputing Deutch’s characterization of the documents insofar as they concern allegations against staff members, allegations which make up a marginal portion of the reports. The issue at hand is one of systemic, protected mass abuse against some of the most vulnerable children in the U.S., and should not be responded to with finger-pointing, blame-shifting or partisan politics.