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Oversight Continues: Trump Family Separation Policy Faces Scrutiny in House Judiciary Hearing and Oversight Markup Today

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“We are just beginning to get a picture of how this catastrophic child separation policy was allowed to be implemented, who raised red flags, and who ignored red flags, but there is much more to learn…” – Ur Jaddou, DHS Watch

Today the full House Judiciary Committee will convene an oversight hearing on the Trump Administration’s family separation policy with key government witnesses from ICE, CBP, DOJ and HHS. Also this morning, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform will hold a markup of a resolution authorizing issuance of subpoenas related to the Trump family separation policy. The hearing and markup come on the heels of the February 7 hearing of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Investigations on the same topic, which marked a new chapter in congressional oversight of this divisive and destructive set of policies.

The Feb. 7 hearing left open many questions and recent revelations from the courts and the press have placed greater urgency on the hearing and markup. As early as July, 5, 2018, Oversight Chairman Cummings and Subcommittee Ranking Member Mark Meadows sent a letter to the administration requesting information on family separations, which was reiterated in another letter by Chairman Cummings on August 2, 2018 and again on December 19, 2018. The requested information has not yet been produced. As a result, the Oversight Committee will hold a markup today to authorize subpoenas for the information.  

“We are just beginning to get a picture of how this catastrophic child separation policy was allowed to be implemented, who raised red flags, and who ignored red flags in order to implement the President’s cruel and inhumane family separation policy,” said Ur Jaddou, the Director of DHS Watch, a project of America’s Voice. “With each iteration of oversight, more of the ugly details are likely to come out.  This is critical because thousands more children than previously thought have been separated, children continue to be separated from their families, and the Trump Administration keeps dragging its feet with the court and Congress in providing full and accurate information necessary to make these families whole again.”

Questions Raised by E&C Hearing on Feb. 7 Need Clarification

  • Who Ignored Child Welfare Expert Warnings? U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps Commander Jonathan White, who testified on Feb 7 and will testify again today, said at the Feb. 7 hearing that he raised serious concerns regarding family separation to his superiors. But were those warnings, based on the child welfare expertise of HHS and the Public Health Service, ignored? What exactly did he say, who exactly did he tell within HHS and DHS and what did those superiors do with his warning?  Were any plans put in place to minimize the harm to children?
  • DHS Failure to Inform HHS of Official Family Separation Policy to Allow for Appropriate Planning and Preparation: Commander White also testified on Feb. 7 that his agency was repeatedly told there was no official DHS policy to separate kids until it was publicly announced. As a result, GAO said, HHS officials were told not to prepare…despite a “steep increase” in separated children that occured prior to Trump’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy, as the Health and Human Services Inspector General (HHS IG) found. Did DHS in fact fail to notify HHS?  If so, why? If DHS did notify HHS, why were career public servants told otherwise?

Family Separation is an Ongoing Issue Without Adequate Child Welfare Oversight

The questions for witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing could shed light not only on what happened but what is happening now. The court is putting pressure on the Trump Administration to account for thousands of children already separated from their families, but further information is needed on the extent to which the family separation policy is still being carried out. As the Texas Civil Rights Project and USA Today reported last week, and the HHS IG confirmed last month, family separation is an ongoing problem with hundreds of children being separated without consideration of basic child welfare principles and no oversight.  Members of Congress on the Judiciary Committee could ask:

  • What standards and protocols are used when children are separated from parents?
  • Were child welfare and family law experts consulted when those standards and protocols were developed?  
  • Is there a process for parents to appeal separation decisions that may not be justified?
  • Why is the Department of Justice refusing to account for the thousands of additional children separated by the Trump administration but not previously identified until an HHS IG report last month?

Failure to Create Family Tracking Systems

According to both the GAO and the HHS IG, DHS and HHS did not have systems to track separated families before the “zero tolerance” memo was implemented and still do not have effective tracking systems. Therefore, HHS was often unaware that a child in their custody was separated from a parent and parents often spent weeks and sometimes months searching for their child.  Members of Congress on the Judiciary Committee could ask:

  • What were the challenges that DHS, HHS, and families faced in remaining in communication due to failures to appropriately track families?
  • Were there any systems in place to track families when the policy was first implemented?
  • Have any fixes been made and what challenges remain? How will those challenges be addressed?