Thousands of migrant children were allegedly sexually abused while in the custody of the federal government in the last four years, according to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) documents released by Rep. Ted Deutch, a Florida Democrat.
In total, there have been 4,556 reports of sexual abuse since 2014, according to the documents. The majority of those reports are instances of migrant children abusing other migrant children. But 178 reports involve accusations against employees at facilities operated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency under HHS responsible for caring for unaccompanied migrant children, including those separated from their parents under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.
Over the last three years, that’s nearly an average of one sexual assault per week, according to Deutch, a senior member on the House Judiciary Committee.
In a tense House Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday, Jonathan White, the former deputy director of children’s programs at the Office of Refugee Resettlement, said that no one at his agency had been accused.
"Those are not HHS staff in any of those allegations," White said. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) instead works with licensed shelters and care providers to oversee unaccompanied migrant children. The agency requires all shelters to report any allegations to its officials, child protective services, HHS, and the FBI.
“The question is, when you went forward with this policy, did anyone discuss this? Was this a hesitation given that you had this history did anyone worry about what was gonna happen to these kids? Was the secretary aware of the numbers in these charts?" Deutch also asked during the hearing, referring to the HHS documents detailing the abuse.
After some back-and-forth, White responded: "In every conversation that we had about separation, we opposed separation."
A House Judiciary Committee request for information related to the Trump administration’s family separation practices dredged up the documents, which provide some detail of allegations. They include: sexual relationships between staff and minors, forced kissing, molestation, groping, and providing pornography to minors.
Depending on the incident, the staff involved were either fired, relocated, or cleared after investigation.
“These are vulnerable children in difficult circumstances, and ORR fully understands its responsibility to ensure that each child is treated with the utmost care,” HHS spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley said in a statement to VICE News. “When any allegations of abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect are made, they are taken seriously and ORR acts swiftly to investigate and respond.”
In several hearings about the zero tolerance policy, Congress has heard that the Trump administration had no official mechanism for tracking separated families — and thus no way to efficiently reunite them. About 2,700 children were reported to have been separated from their parents, although that number may be higher, according to a recent government report. It’s also still unclear exactly how many children have been reunited.
The House Judiciary Committee voted on Tuesday to subpoena the heads of the Departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security to deliver documents related to the policy to lawmakers.
Carter Sherman contributed to this report.
Cover image: Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., speaks during a House Judiciary Committee hearing. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)