This week, congressional testimony by a top Trump administration official revealed a truly shocking and harrowing fact. Namely, federal agencies lost track of 1,475 migrant children between October 2017 and the end of that year, raising fears about the condition of the missing kids.
Steven Wagner, the acting assistant secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families, revealed the startling figure in testimony before a Senate committee. He revealed that the children ― who arrived in the United States alone, with many fleeing violence and poverty in countries like Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador ― had been handed off to adult sponsors.
In total, there were 7,635 children assigned to sponsors. But when the agency started making phone calls to confirm the safety and care of the children, they found that only 6,075 of them could be confirmed to still be under the care of the sponsors.
According to the report, 85 of them were no longer under sponsor care for known reasons, whether because they fled, were reassigned, or were removed from the United States. But that leaves a staggering 1,475 of the children unaccounted for, and the agency is not sure where they are.
This raises significant concerns, because it's not uncommon for migrant children to be preyed on by human traffickers. Last year, as The Guardian detailed, there was a global surge in unaccompanied migrant children crossing national borders, one which greatly increased the risk of the vulnerable kids ending up in slavery, prostitution, or other forms of grievous human rights abuses.
Republican Senator Rob Portman made this very point, according to The New York Times, criticizing the agency for failing to pay proper attention to the thousands of vulnerable kids under its supervision.
"HHS has a responsibility to better track these children so they aren’t trafficked or abused, and so they show up to their court hearings," Portman said.
The story also adds another grim layer to the Trump administration's recent decision to separate undocumented immigrant children from their parents when they're caught crossing the United States' southern border. This was controversial enough on its own to begin with, as deliberately breaking up families, and yanking young children away from their parents, is about as tragic and painful an idea as it gets, and it's drawn furious condemnation from progressives and pro-immigration advocates.
Needless to say, that already profoundly inflammatory idea takes on an even more worrying aspect when the government's basic ability to keep track of the children under its authority is called into question. And there aren't many quicker ways to raise alarms about a government's oversight of vulnerable children than it losing track of nearly 1,500 of them.
As The New York Times noted in its coverage, typically adult sponsors for migrant children will be parents of family members already living in the country, although obviously, it's not always the case that those family members exist. Potential sponsors are also supposed to undergo a comprehensive background check process, so to ensure that they don't prey on the children in their care.
But notwithstanding, there have been cases in the past of children ending up being placed with traffickers. As The Times' report notes, two years ago a congressional subcommittee report revealed that eight children had been handed off by the agency to traffickers, who put them to work on a farm in Ohio.
The report directed serious scrutiny toward the background check system, as well as the agency's failure to properly follow up with the sponsors after they received the migrant children, which would have helped it ensure that nothing was amiss. And in this current case, with nearly 1,500 kids unaccounted for, it seems likely a whole lot more scrutiny is coming.