(CNN) – Senior Department of Health and Human Services officials failed to act on repeated warnings from staff about family separations at the US-Mexico border, and staff members were advised not to put controversial information in writing, according to a HHS inspector general report released Thursday.
The report provides a new look into how senior officials within the department tasked with caring for migrant children handled the Trump administration's controversial "zero tolerance" immigration policy, which led to thousands of children being separated from their families in 2018.
"It is not great for children to be separated from their parents," but "I do not know what the moral right thing to do is in this situation," the Counselor to the Secretary for Human Services Policy, a position in the office of the secretary, conceded in an interview with the inspector general. The journey to the US-Mexico border is also dangerous, the person said.
Thursday's 75-page report is the latest in a series of reports from government watchdogs detailing the consequences of the administration's policy, including the emotional toll it took on children and the challenges in reunifying families. The new report builds upon those accounts and demonstrates inaction at senior levels of the department that left the federal agency tasked with caring for children unprepared.
The failure to take proactive measures for the potential of increased family separations put the federal agency in a position where it was reacting to changes, instead of preparing for them. The lack of planning, according to the report, contributed to the challenges staff faced in identifying separated children and reunifying them with their parents.
The Department of Health and Human Services houses the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a federal agency responsible for the care of unaccompanied migrant children. As a result, while it did not develop the "zero tolerance" policy, it was tasked with caring for the separated children.
Some senior HHS officials were hesitant to interfere with immigration enforcement policy, or advocate for the department's mission in interagency forums, the report found.
"HHS suggestions regarding immigration policy were sometimes interpreted as obstructing law enforcement efforts," the report stated, citing the HHS Counselor to the Secretary for Human Services Policy.
The culture also discouraged staff from putting controversial information in writing. The report highlights an example in which an ORR employee who sent an email that included concerns about family separation was then told by a superior within the agency not to put those concerns in an email.
Staff members said they were "criticized" for documenting certain information as well.
"ORR staff recalled receiving repeated, general reminders to be cautious about putting information in writing, as well as being instructed to provide verbal-only briefings and offer verbal-only comments on certain matters," according to the report.
The resulting limited paper trail hindered efforts to determine what occurred and how HHS can improve in the future.
"The lack of documentation may also have contributed to senior HHS officials' ability to dismiss staffs' concerns about capacity and children's well-being rather than squarely address them," the report says.
In its response to the report, HHS said that it "advocates vigorously for the downstream child welfare mission" and noting the agency doesn't have a direct role in shaping immigration enforcement policy.
Lack of proactive preparations left federal agency unprepared
Staff faced particular challenges when trying to reach parents in detention. "[T]he facility called [the DHS detention center] every day seeking the parents of an 11-year-old child. They could not reach anyone. The child cried every day," one facility program director said.
"Not knowing what happened to their parents haunted the children. We couldn't tell them whether they would ultimately be reunited. It was challenging. We weren't notified initially about how to connect parents with their kids. The kids had lots of questions, but we had no answers for them," recalled a facility lead mental health clinician.
Last year, the Health and Human Services inspector general released a report detailing how migrant children who were separated from their parents experienced "heightened feelings of anxiety and loss," according to accounts of facility staff.
Thursday's report, which refers to the individuals by title only, is based on interviews, written responses, documents, as well as interagency correspondence and records that involved HHS senior officials and staff. It concludes that HHS needs to ensure it puts childrens' interests first; formalizes agreements with the departments of Homeland Security and Justice; improves communication with care provider facilities; and streamlines procedures to identify and track separated children.
HHS has maintained that it wasn't responsible for separating families. The inspector general report acknowledges that, but also notes its lack of planning made the situation worse.
"HHS was not responsible for separating families, but HHS's inadequate communication, management, and planning made the situation worse for many separated children," the report states, later adding: "Ultimately, HHS took a supportive public stance toward the zero-tolerance policy once enacted." The policy ended in June 2018.
Staff begins to warn senior officials of family separation
During the summer of 2017, Office of Refugee Resettlement staff started noticing an unusually large number of separated children entering their care. In January 2018, months before the "zero tolerance" policy was announced, the then-deputy director for children's programs at ORR also learned from Homeland Security staff that DHS had developed a projection of the number of children who would be turned over to the ORR under an enforcement policy that would increase the prosecution of adults at the border.
"I said ORR was seeing much higher levels of separation, and that those separations were impacting particularly babies and young children," the former ORR deputy director for children's programs told the inspector general. "I said this so many times that I was called a broken record."
An ORR staff member also shared that they tried to alert officials. "I told them it was going to traumatize children to separate them unnecessarily. I said that to anyone I could," the staff member said.
Despite those warnings, three senior HHS officials -- the Counselor to the Secretary for Human Services Policy, the Acting Assistant Secretary for Administration for Children and Families and the ORR Director -- failed to act.
The officials did not, according to the report, plan for the possibility of an increase in the number of separated children, press the topic in high-level meetings or other interagency forums, or elevate the matter within their department.
In interviews with the inspector general, the then-Counselor to the Secretary for Human Services Policy and the Acting Assistant Secretary for ACF said they didn't recall receiving information about increased numbers of separations in 2017 or discussions about child welfare concerns related to separation.
"If conversations occurred referring to separated children, it did not have the context of meaning it was children separated from parents...I either missed it in reporting or it was not reported up to me," said the former Counselor to the Secretary for Human Services Policy.
The ORR director at the time confirmed he was informed of the increase of separated children in 2017, and was copied on outreach to US Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- two agencies within DHS -- about the issue.
Scott Lloyd, the former ORR head, told lawmakers last year that he didn’t share concerns about family separation with superiors-- a question prompted by an earlier testimony of an official who said he raised issues with the policy prior to implementation.