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Washington — An executive from a Michigan foster services agency says migrant children are still being separated from their families at the Southern border, and that Trump administration policies are making it difficult to reunite them. 

The vice president of the Grand Rapids-based Bethany Christian Services said her agency cared for 108 migrant children forcibly separated under the administration's policy. Staffers worked "diligently" to locate their families and reunited them within 54 days on average.  

"While the reasons for separation are not always clear and continue to be concerning, it is never OK to take children from their families for the purposes of immigration enforcement," Dona Abbott said Thursday during a U.S. House hearing. 

"Children should never be used as a deterrent, leverage or bait."

A federal judge last year issued an injunction blocking most family separations and ordering those separated to be brought back together. 

Bethany opposed the Trump administration's family separation policy, but contracts with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlementto care for unaccompanied migrant children and those separated from their parents at the border. 

The nonprofit agency has a long history of working with refugee children, saying it has reunified more than 2,000 unaccompanied minors with sponsors since 2013 and continues to do so. 

Lawmakers on the panel, led by Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado, heard Thursday from pediatricians and mental health experts who said the "toxic stress" of family separation can cause irreparable harm to children, disrupting brain architecture and affecting their health.

Separation practice condemned

Both Democrats and Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations condemned the separation practice.

"What happened to these children should never happen in this country," DeGette said. "It's important to keep in mind these are real families, real kids who were forcibly torn apart and kept apart by our government." 

Rep. Greg Walden, the top Republican on the full committee, noted that every GOP member of the panel signed a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in June "expressing our belief that children should not be separated from their parents." 

Last month, the inspector general for HHS found the administration had separated thousands more children from their families than the 2,737 previously reported under court order.

The inspector general report also said the policy was instituted in July 2017 — months earlier than it was announced. 

The Office of Refugee Resettlementsaid 83 separated children remained in custody as of Feb. 1.

Bethany received 12 referrals for children separated from a parent in the last three months, Abbott said. 

The current number of separations nationally are about twice the level seen in late 2016, but "significantly less" than the peak recorded during the summer of 2017, said Ann Maxwell, assistant inspector general for evaluation and inspections at HHS.

The government is "unilaterally" declaring parents unfit or a danger to the child without stating what standard it's applying and without a process to contest the finding, said Lee Gelernt, lead attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union's lawsuit challenging family separation. 

"We think it's critical going forward that there be proper procedures put in place and proper processes so separations do not occur based solely on a unilateral determination by an untrained (Customs and Border Patrol) officer at the border," Gelernt said. 

Maxwell said, at this point, separations should only be occurring due to concerns for a child’s safety, "as has historically been done."

However, immigration agents have provided HHS with limited information about the reasons for these separations, she added. 

"The most common reason DHS reported these recent separations is a parent's criminal history," Maxwell said, referring to the Department of Homeland Security. 

"But HHS didn't receive specifics about the criminal histories, which is important because from a child welfare perspective, not all criminal history rises to a level that would imperil child safety or preclude release back to their parents."

Barriers to reuniting families

Jonathan White, who previously served as deputy director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement's program for unaccompanied minors, told lawmakers there is no specification in federal law about the "permissible" grounds for separating a child from a parent.

"And I suggest if you want to see that, that’s on you all," said White, now the commander of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.

Abbott told the committee she wants officials to stop sharing with immigration agents the information of parents or other potential sponsors for unaccompanied minors because it increases the time children spend in government custody and serves as a barrier to reuniting families. 

The Trump administration in December reversed a policy that required fingerprinting for adults living in a household where a migrant child would live, but sponsor data is still being shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, she said. 

"We are no longer able to reassure a sponsor that claiming their children won't lead to their arrest and potential deportation to a country that they fled to escape violence and persecution," Abbott said. 

"Sponsors are being forced to choose between the safety of their households and their children — a decision no parent should ever be forcedto make." 

Abbott stressed that a lot of people coming to the United States as refugees or asylum seekers are looking for safety, often fleeing "out-of-control" gangs and governments unable or too corrupt to protect their citizens. 

She told the story of two sisters, ages 15 and 11, raised by their grandmother in Guatemala while their mother worked in the United States and sent money home to support them.

Gang members demanding protection money beat the grandmother in front of the girls and promised to return for the sisters if they couldn’t pay, Abbott said.

“The girls fled. Bethany and ORR helped these girls find safety and, eventually, their mother,” Abbott said.

“Young girls should not have to live in fear of being raped and prostituted, especially when people in this great country can do something to help them. Like these two girls, every unaccompanied child is made in the image of God. Each of them matter deeply to me, and should matter to us.

'Humanitarian crisis'

Walden said there seems to be a "humanitarian crisis" at the border, using the phrase President Donald Trump has used to describe the situation. "Is that your take, too?" Walden asked. 

"Yes. I tend to refer to people at the border as refugees, rather than migrants, because when people think of ‘migrants’ they think they have a choice," Abbott said. 

She recommended that Congress give ORR authority at the border to better protect children. 

Currently, Customs and Border Patrol has 72 hours to determine if a child is fleeing without a parent or guardian or being trafficked before CBP must transfer the child into the care of ORR, Abbott said.

But Border Patrol agents are trained in law enforcement and not child welfare best practices.

"ORR social workers with a background in child protection services could facilitate quick, adequate investigations and assist in making decisions about the appropriateness of a separation," Abbott said. 

In her written testimony, she also raised concerns about ORR's use of large-scale detention institutions to house unaccompanied minors who cross the border without a parent or guardian. 

She said approximately 9,800 unaccompanied minors spent this past Christmas in institutions housing over 100 children each, in contrast to the alternative: Transitional foster care homes.

"This method of housing children at the border is both surprising and deeply concerning when you consider that the United States rejected large-scale, institutional care for vulnerable children in the U.S. 110 years ago," Abbott said. 

"It harms children, and we shouldn't accept it today for traumatized children who are seeking refuge within our borders." 

Bethany has the capacity to provide foster care to about 99 children and operates no large shelter settings, she said. 

The agency is expanding its foster-care capacity into three other states, "so we can continue to meet the need of truly unaccompanied children who need a family setting," Abbott said.

mburke@detroitnews.com

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