WASHINGTON, D.C. – Children under the watchful eye of the federal government and at the mercy of their oversight were placed with human traffickers who forced them to work up to 7 days a week for 12-hour shifts on an egg farm, a U.S. Senate report says.
Each year, tens of thousands of children enter the United States, unaccompanied by their parents or relatives. If taken into U.S. custody, those children are designated “unaccompanied alien children” or “UACs.”1 Congress has tasked the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) with finding appropriate homes in which to place UACs temporarily, pending the resolution of immigration proceedings. The agency within HHS that performs that function is the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Through procedures described in this report, HHS attempts to place each UAC with a suitable adult sponsor—someone who can care for them and ensure their appearance at their immigration hearings. In carrying out this responsibility, federal law requires HHS to ensure that UACs are protected from human trafficking and other forms of abuse.
Over a period of four months in 2014, however, HHS allegedly placed a number of UACs in the hands of a ring of human traffickers who forced them to work on egg farms in and around Marion, Ohio, leading to a federal criminal indictment. According to the indictment, the minor victims were forced to work six or seven days a week, twelve hours per day. The traffickers repeatedly threatened the victims and their families with physical harm, and even death, if they did not work or surrender their entire paychecks. The indictment alleges that the defendants “used a combination of threats, humiliation, deprivation, financial coercion, debt manipulation, and monitoring to create a climate of fear and helplessness that would compel [the victims’] compliance.”
U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, has opened a hearing on his investigation into these shocking revelations. The investigation was triggered by a federal indictment of labor traffickers in Ohio whose victims included children placed by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement—a division of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS).
“It is intolerable that human trafficking — modern-day slavery — could occur in our own backyard. But what makes the Marion cases even more alarming is that a U.S. government agency was responsible for delivering some of the victims into the hands of their abusers,” Portman said in his opening remarks. “Perhaps the most troubling, unanswered question is this: how many other cases are there like the Marion trafficking case? The answer is HHS doesn’t know.”
Portman’s report can be viewed here.
A Senate Subcommittee sought to determine whether the Marion placements were caused by a tragic series of missteps or more systemic deficiencies in HHS’s UAC placement process. Based on that investigation, the Subcommittee concludes that HHS’s policies and procedures are inadequate to protect the children in the agency’s care.