Government Report Details Devastating Damage Inflicted on Children by DHS’s Family Separation Policy

Yesterday, a federal watchdog agency released a report confirming what Young Center Child Advocates have reported for the last 18 months:

  • First, that DHS began intentionally separating children from their parents well in advance of the “zero-tolerance policy,” as early as the summer of 2017, in numbers that may reach into the thousands;(i)

  • Second, that “no centralized system existed to identify, track or connect families separated by DHS”;(ii) and

  • Third, that parent-child separations did not end as ordered by court in July 2018 but continue to this day based on nothing more than an allegation by DHS that the parent has a “criminal history.”(iii)

In the summer and fall of 2017, Young Center Child Advocates in our eight offices around the country started seeing a steep increase in the number of cases where a child had arrived at the border not alone, not unaccompanied, but with a parent. DHS had separated them with no good reason, designated the children as “unaccompanied” and sent them to government custody across the country while their parents were placed in adult immigration jail. Many parents were summarily deported without their children. The Young Center was appointed as Child Advocate to these separated children, and our work focused on finding the parents, arranging those first calls between parents and children, reunifying the families that could and finding safe placements for the other children.

Yesterday’s long-awaited report from the HHS Office of Inspector General confirmed what we knew—that for at least nine months before the announcement of the zero-tolerance policy, DHS was “testing” family separation. For months, families entering in the El Paso sector were forcibly separated. The HHS OIG report details how in August 2017, the number of separated children in ORR care skyrocketed from just 0.3% to 3.6% of all children in ORR’s care. This was long before then-Attorney General Sessions announced his zero-tolerance policy, which led to the separation of every child arriving with a parent along the entire US-Mexico border. In ACLU-led litigation challenging that policy, the government confirmed that approximately 2,700 children were separated during the period when zero-tolerance was in effect. But it wasn’t until yesterday’s report that the government acknowledged that DHS had been quietly separating families for nearly a year.

All of the immigrant children taken from their parents were traumatized as their families were torn apart. Infants and toddlers were taken from their mothers. Eight-year-olds, eleven-year-olds and teenagers were separated and placed in government custody, sometimes clear across the country. “We saw firsthand how desperate these children were to reunify with their families,” said the Young Center’s policy director Jennifer Nagda. “The younger children exhibited immediate changes in health, development and personality—struggling to sleep and eat, acting out, regressing in their development. Older children abandoned claims for protection so that they could be deported quickly and returned to their parents. Others made the very grown-up decision to live with relatives in the U.S. as they pursued protection here, knowing that they might not see their parents for years if at all. But all of them faced the trauma of having been taken from their parents without warning, without an opportunity to prepare, often without the chance even to say goodbye.”

At the Young Center, we are most distressed that these separations continue today based solely on a claim from DHS that the parent has a “criminal history.” This term is not yet limited in any meaningful way—a criminal history might include arrests that never led to convictions, or arrests for crimes that have nothing to do with a parent’s ability to care for his or her child. Other reasons include unsubstantiated allegations of “gang involvement” which the government considered a “criminal history” sufficient to take children from their parents—many of whom are fleeing gang violence to protect their families. Once again, we’re seeing an increase in parent-child separations across the country.

At the Young Center, we will continue to champion each child’s rights to be safe, to be heard, to be free of detention, and to be with family, as is their right under the Constitution. We encourage the public to demand accountability for the many more families who were separated, and to ensure that these separations cease once and for all.

For more information, contact Jennifer Nagda, Policy Director, at Press inquiries should be sent to

(i) “Separated Children Placed in Office of Refugee Resettlement Care,” Dep’t of Health & Human Services Office of Inspector General (January 2019) at p. 6 noting that “Overall, ORR . . . officials estimate that thousands of separated children entered ORR care and were released prior to . . . June 26, 2018.” Available at
(ii) Id. at 5.
(iii) Id. at 21, Letter from Assistant Secretary for Children and Families Lynn A. Johnson to Assistant inspector General for Evaluation and Inspection at HHS (“As of December 26, 2018, ORR has identified 218 children who were separated by DHS and transferred to ORR care after June 26, 2018”,)

Maddie Witters