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U.S. Government Faces Lawsuits Over Care Migrant Children Received In Foster Homes


When U.S. border authorities separate children from their families, some of those kids end up in foster care. It's an alternative to border detention facilities, where hundreds of children can be held together. These detention facilities have come under intense criticism, described by many as being overcrowded and squalid. Well, foster care can be a more humane option, but an ongoing investigation by The Associated Press and the PBS series "Frontline" found that may not always be the case.

One of the reporters on this story is Garance Burke with the Associated Press. She joins us now. Welcome.

GARANCE BURKE: Thanks so much.

CHANG: So I understand that you looked at dozens of allegations made by migrant families. Some of those allegations involve kids in foster care. What have their parents said about what happened to these children?

BURKE: Well, one of the things that was most striking to us is the parents said that after they were separated at the border, their kids were put in these federally funded foster care settings, but the parents had no idea where they were. And one of the sets of allegations that has come up is that, in fact, where they were, the children were sexually molested or assaulted by other children in those foster homes.

CHANG: Oh, so this alleged abuse happened inside the homes, after they were already placed?

BURKE: Yes. So typically in these foster care settings that are funded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the children go to a school day care program during the day, and they only go to these foster homes at night. And they can be in homes where there are multiple children sleeping in the same house, and that's where the assaults are alleged to have occurred, or sometimes physical misconduct as well.

CHANG: Is there legal precedent for migrant families to get damages from the U.S. government?

BURKE: This is an emerging area of the law. There's one federal lawsuit that's currently in litigation in Massachusetts that's related to this. And in February, a federal judge in Connecticut actually approved a settlement for a Honduran mom and her son, who had been threatened with separation under the Obama administration. But these particular kinds of claims are brought under something called the Federal Tort Claims Act that allows individuals who suffer harm as a direct result of federal employees to sue the government. So we'll see where these head.

CHANG: How has the U.S. government responded to any of these allegations?

BURKE: So the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security did not respond to our requests for comment, but Health and Human Services, which is responsible for the care of migrant kids, said it doesn't respond to pending litigation, but it treats the children in the agency's care with dignity and respect. And they, it should be said, care for nearly 50,000 children last year, sometimes making daily placements of as many as 500 new arrivals, from babies to teens.

CHANG: So where do things stand now legally? I mean, is the government trying to settle these claims? Are they trying to resolve these problems now?

BURKE: So the government has six months to settle these claims from the time they're filed.

CHANG: Under the Federal Tort Claims Act?

BURKE: Correct.


BURKE: Exactly. And after that, the claimants can file federal lawsuits.

CHANG: OK. So do you expect more families to come forward with similar claims of abuse?

BURKE: One attorney who we spoke with who's been filing a number of these claims, who works for a very large law firm, said that this is really the tip of the iceberg. And he expects dozens more likely coming.

CHANG: Wow. Garance Burke is an investigative reporter with The Associated Press. Thank you very much for joining us today.

BURKE: Thank you.

CHANG: NPR has also reached out to the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice and Health and Human Services. We have not yet received comment from DOJ and DHS. HHS reiterated its statement to the AP, which was that it does not comment on pending litigation and, quote, "treats the children in its care with dignity and respect"

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.