A Florida grand jury that was empaneled after a request by Gov. Ron DeSantis last year is accusing the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) of a “complete abdication” of responsibility for the welfare of unaccompanied migrant children transported to the state — amid a broader investigation into the federal government’s rehousing of UACs.
The grand jury report concluded that HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) is “facilitating the forced migration, sale, and abuse of foreign children, and some of our fellow Florida residents are (in some cases unwittingly) funding and incentivizing it for primarily economic reasons.”
DeSantis filed a petition last year for the Florida Supreme Court to “impanel a statewide grand jury to examine international human smuggling networks that bring aliens to the southern border, and ultimately to Florida.”
The 46-page report is the latest report to come from the jury, which has already released two such reports on illegal immigration. The latest report focuses specifically on the release of migrant children into the U.S. to sponsors.
When unaccompanied children come to the border, they are currently turned over by Border Patrol to Health and Human Services (HHS) who will attempt to find them a sponsor within the country — typically, but not always, a family member. While not unique to the Biden administration, it has become a major issue under the administration due to the massive surge of children coming to the border as part of the ongoing migrant crisis.
The report described a “clandestine” process to facilitating the transport of child migrants into Florida. During a six-month period in 2021 it describes how more than 70 planes landed in Jacksonville, Florida at night time and that companies and others involved often received last-minute notices.
“If an operation were ferrying terrorists or large quantities of narcotics, this is what it would look like,” it said.
The report faulted HHS for a lack of background checks and follow-ups both during the current administration and preceding ones. It noted that in FY 2021, ORR took custody of 122,700 children but only conducted 5,468 home visits.
“Of the 245,515 children placed with sponsors between August 2018 and January 2022, only 1,835 received discretionary home studies—or less than one percent of cases,” it said.
It also cited instances where some sponsors apply to receive more than one child, including one address in Texas that had 44 children sent to it, while one sponsor in Florida had children sent to multiple addresses using different forms of his name. The report says witnesses described how some sponsors used the address of a strip club in Jacksonville, empty lots of open fields.
The report also describes stories of alleged abuse that unaccompanied children received when they arrived at their sponsors’ homes, including one child being “pimped out” by an “aunt,” some who had run away because they were being sold for sex, young children being left with an unknown male while a sponsor was working and children being forced to drop out of school and work to pay the debts for being smuggled into the U.S.
The report says that documents to prove sponsorship are rarely provided in person, and interviews are conducted by phone. The report finds that ORR “has a rather spotty record when it comes to vetting sponsors, and has intentionally gutted many of the protections for minors that were in place regarding the identities and backgrounds of the adults to whom they were given.”
“We believe this is why the agency does all it can to keep the public from knowing what is going on,” the report says.
It also faults the agency for what it says could be construed as the facilitation of the trafficking of children.
“ORR and its non-profit partners may wish for us to trust their process and ignore the evidence and testimony presented. But what has been observed is the complete abdication of responsibility for the welfare of minor children they have transported to our state, then effectively abandoned, often to dangerous and illegal situations,” the report said.
In a statement, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody thanked DeSantis for calling for the investigation into what she called “the Biden administration’s abject failure to protect unaccompanied minors in dangerous situations.”
“As a mother, I am outraged at how the Biden administration and others in authority have encouraged this nightmare through policy and are neglecting hundreds of thousands of children, subjecting them to abuse and sexual assault even after they cross the border,” she said. “The federal government is knowingly aiding and abetting trafficking organizations and allowing horrific harm to happen to these children.”
“I am calling upon Congress to investigate and consider federal law to stop these misguided programs,” she added.
The grand jury issued recommendations including that it be made mandatory for any person in the state who obtains custody of a UAC to report it to the state Department of Children and Families and initiate proceedings to determine legal custody. They recommend making it a felony
The report comes amid continuing concerns over the potential trafficking of UACs in the U.S. Most recently the New York Times published a deep dive report on migrants who had been released to sponsors but were instead trafficked and forced to work in dangerous jobs.
HHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the grand jury report. However, at a Senate hearing earlier this month, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra was asked about the Times report and numbers cited that the agency had been unable to make contact with over 85,000 UACs
“I have never heard that number of 85,000, I don’t know where it comes from and …so I would say it doesn’t sound at all to be realistic, and what we do is we try and follow up as best we can with these kids,” he said.
“Congress has given us certain authorities. Our authorities end when we have found a suitable sponsor to place that child with. We try and do some follow up but neither the child or the sponsor is actually obligated to follow up with us,” he said.