Delawareans are working to protect the most vulnerable among us

Yesterday, I welcomed two Delawareans to testify before the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI). As the top Democrat on this bipartisan subcommittee, I work closely with my Republican counterpart, Senator Rob Portman from Ohio, to investigate a wide variety of matters that Senator Portman and I decide, together, deserve a closer look by Congress. This historic subcommittee was originally founded as then-Senator Harry Truman’s “War Investigating Committee” during the Second World War. Since then, PSI has investigated organized crime, the Enron scandal, and, following the financial collapse of 2008, the key causes of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Leading this subcommittee is a privilege that also gives Senator Portman and me broad authority to ask tough questions that no one else is asking.

In 2008, Congress passed a law, signed by President Bush, requiring the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to take custody of, and care for, all children that arrive at our borders without a parent or guardian. But beyond any legal obligation, we have a moral obligation to care for these children – who arrive alone to a new country, often having experienced extreme violence and trauma – as if they were our own. HHS frequently acquires sponsors to care for the unaccompanied children in a foster care-type program.

In 2016, PSI held a hearing to question HHS officials on the findings in a staff report that detailed how HHS had placed eight Central American children with sponsors in Marion, Ohio, who forced them to work tirelessly on an egg farm. The children worked under threat of violence, apparently to pay off debts incurred to the smugglers who had brought them into our country. This horrible story is just one of many in which unaccompanied children in our care are taken advantage of. The subcommittee told HHS officials they needed to fix this program, quickly, and gave them a number of recommendations on things they need to do to better care for the vulnerable children in their charge.

Yesterday, Senator Portman and I held a follow-up hearing to hear directly from HHS and Department of Homeland Security officials on the progress they’ve made. Disturbingly, HHS officials informed our subcommittee that, instead of making progress, they had in fact “lost” 1,500 of the 7,000 children who entered their unaccompanied children program in the last few months of 2017 alone. Instead of cleaning up their act over the past two years and showing us how they were better monitoring the children placed in their care, HHS showed that they’re still at square one. The Department of Health and Human Services has a lot of work to do to make this right, to stop ignoring its duty under the law and stop denying these children the chance they deserve to live in safety.

Luckily, in communities across Delaware and around the country, we have selfless women and men who have dedicated their lives to caring for the most vulnerable among us, including those children in HHS’s care. Dr. Pattiva Cathell, a school counselor at Sussex Central High School for English-language learners, joined me at yesterday’s hearing. This school year alone, Sussex Central enrolled 91 unaccompanied youth. Dr. Cathell works tirelessly with these new students, their sponsors and the community to make sure these kids get a fair chance – and to make sure they don’t get lost along the way. All told, Sussex Central has 267 English-language learner students that Dr. Cathell has put in her charge. At our hearing, she told me Sussex Central continues to increase the number of unaccompanied children that go on to graduate each year – from 12 in 2006, to 34 last year. This year, they anticipate awarding diplomas to 53 of these students. This is an incredible feat of which she and everyone at Sussex Central High School should be proud.

I was also joined by Laura Graham, Deputy Director and Managing Attorney of the Immigration and Medical-Legal Partnership Programs at Community Legal Aid Society Inc. in Delaware. As a legal advocate, Laura helps unaccompanied children navigate the complex requirements for them to obtain protected status as an immigrant in the United States. Many unaccompanied children only speak Spanish, and often, their sponsors are native-Spanish speakers as well who either can’t read, or can’t read at a level that allows them to help fill out paperwork in English and understand the multi-part process. Without legal representation like that provided by Laura and her team, unaccompanied children have only a 15% chance of being granted protected status and the safety and opportunity a life in our country offers them. With her help, their chances go up to 73%. Laura’s tireless advocacy and education efforts give these children a trusted partner, and helps give them the chance to succeed.

Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services could learn a lesson from Dr. Cathell and Ms. Graham. I’ll continue to press HHS on their efforts to fix their broken program and give these children the chance they are owed. And I look forward to continuing working with my partner on PSI, Senator Portman on this and other issues that deserve greater attention from Congress and all of us.