A Department of Health and Human Services official told senators on Thursday the agency doesn't lose track of unaccompanied minors but rather, it's hard to locate them after they leave their custody.
"There are no lost children. There are some families that don't take our call, that's a big difference," Jonathan White, the assistant secretary for Preparedness and Response at HHS, told senators during a hearing Thursday.
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He continued: "Many individuals come out of the shadows to take their child from us and some of them return to the shadows because they are individuals who are living undocumented in the United States in most cases. And they believe they have cause to fear us."
The comments from the official comes after a report revealed the Department of Health and Human Services is not taking responsibility for unaccompanied minors once they're placed with sponsors.
Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, slammed White for his comments, saying he was "simply inaccurate."
"There are lost children, clearly," Portman said during the hearing. "I can't believe that you would think that because you don't know where 1,500 (children) were under a three month period between October and December of last year. You do know that a couple dozen of these kids actually ran away from their sponsors, that there are no lost children."
The report found that Health and Human Services had failed to establish rules to protect unaccompanied minors and provides recommendations for improving the system to ensure these children are properly cared for and protected.
For example, from October to December 2017, out of 7,635 attempted phone calls to find unaccompanied minors placed with sponsors, HHS found 28 "had run away" and couldn't determine the whereabouts of 1.475 unaccompanied minors.
The report also found the Department of Justice currently has 355 immigration judges handling all the immigration court cases, but has the authority to hire 129 more judges. The current median wait time for an unaccompanied minor is 480 days.
The report notes that while HHS and the Department of Homeland Security have taken steps to improve the care of unaccompanied minors, major issues exist that leave the children at risk for trafficking and abuse.
The report also found that lot of the problems started in the Obama administration and continued into the Trump administration.
The departments sent a joint statement ahead of Thursday's hearing slamming the report, saying it "demonstrates fundamental misunderstandings of law and policy related to the safety and care" of unaccompanied minors.
"The Departments alerted PSI to errors in today's report prior to its issuance -- some of which were considered and resulted in minor modifications to the report -- but PSI chose to ignore many operational realities and basic legal authorities (or lack thereof) including the lack of HHS authority to care for UACs after release to a suitable vetted sponsor."
The statement continued: "DOJ, DHS, and HHS will continue to faithfully execute the laws passed by Congress to protect our nation, its borders, and its citizens. We will not be able to fix these long standing problems until Congress acts to address the fundamental and systemic issues that incentivize illegal activity along our nation's border."
The issues affecting minors separated during the Trump administration's "zero-tolerance" policy is not detailed in the report, but investigators note the crisis put strain on the unaccompanied minor program.
"This administration continues to make an already challenging reality for migrant children even more difficult and more dangerous," the subcommittee's top Democrat, Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, said in a statement. "While the recommendations in this report do not solve all of the issues that arise for unaccompanied minors arriving at our southern border, they identify critical steps needed to protect an already vulnerable population."
This story has been updated.
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