As tens of thousands of children fleeing Central American violence crossed the border seeking safe harbor, overwhelmed U.S. officials weakened child protection policies, placing some migrants in homes where they were sexually assaulted, starved or forced to work for little or no pay, reports the Associated Press. Without enough beds to house the record numbers of arrivals, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services lowered safety standards during border surges to move children out of government shelters swiftly into sponsors’ homes. The procedures were increasingly relaxed as the number of young migrants rose in response to spiraling gang and drug violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, said material AP obtained, some under the Freedom of Information Act.
The government stopped fingerprinting most adults seeking to claim the children. In April 2014, the U.S. stopped requiring original copies of birth certificates to prove most sponsors’ identities. The next month, it decided not to complete forms that request sponsors’ personal and identifying information before sending many of the children to sponsors’ homes. Then, it eliminated FBI criminal history checks for many sponsors. Since the rule changes, the AP has identified more than two dozen children who were placed with sponsors who subjected them to sexual abuse, labor trafficking, or severe abuse and neglect. “This is clearly the tip of the iceberg,” said Jacqueline Bhabha, research director at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University. “We would never release domestic children to private settings with as little scrutiny.”