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‘Lost’ migrant children? Statistics show the government is keeping more of them far longer.

Central American migrants stand in line for food in Tijuana, Mexico, while waiting to cross into the United States in April.
Central American migrants stand in line for food in Tijuana, Mexico, while waiting to cross into the United States in April. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

As the Trump administration takes more migrant children into custody at the Mexico border, new statistics show the government is placing a growing number in long-term foster care, sometimes hundreds of miles from their jailed parents.

Reports that spread on social media over the weekend mistakenly claimed the government “lost” 1,475 children last year, but the most recent data indicate the government is detaining more underage migrants for two months or longer.

The number of beds available for such long-term foster care has doubled, to nearly 600, since May 2016, according to a care provider who works with the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency that takes custody of children who are separated from their parents or arrive at the border without a relative.

Trump’s ‘zero tolerance’ at the border is causing child shelters to fill up fast

HHS releases the vast majority of the children into the care of a “sponsor” — typically the child’s parent or a close adult relative. But in the past six months, according to HHS data, the percentage of migrant children in custody without a sponsor increased to 10 percent, up from 7 percent during the government’s 2017 fiscal year, when the agency assumed custody of more than 40,000 underage migrants.

The latest figures also indicate the average amount of time that children spend in HHS shelters has increased to 57 days in recent months, up from 51 days last year.

Now, as the number of children sent to shelters swells, the result of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” crackdown on illegal border crossings, child advocates say a new information-sharing agreement between HHS and the Department of Homeland Security could strand even more children in long-term federal custody.

The agreement signed last month gives Homeland Security access to more information about potential sponsors and children’s relatives — including their immigration status.

That change will keep more kids in federal custody, immigrant advocates say, if their relatives are too scared to step forward or view a sponsorship decision as a choice between retrieving a child and risking their own deportation. In many cases, sponsors are aunts and uncles who may not have a close relationship to a child in custody and may be hesitant to jeopardize the immigration status of their own families, attorneys and advocates say.

“It will also have a chilling effect on children’s willingness to talk about who they know and who their relatives are because they won’t want to get their families in trouble,” said Michelle Brane of the New York-based Women’s Refugee Commission.

Homeland Security officials say the measures are meant to protect children from being sent to the homes of convicted criminals or others unsuited to care for them, and to ensure teenage minors do not have gang affiliations.

They have not said information gathered by HHS will be used for enforcement purposes, but last year, top officials at Immigration and Customs Enforcement proposed adopting such measures to discourage parents who send for their children by hiring “coyote” smugglers to bring them to the United States from Central America.

Steven Wagner, the top official at HHS’s Administration for Children and Families, which runs the program for migrant children, told reporters this week that parents and other relatives who opt to leave children in government care should not be considered adequate sponsors anyway.

“We have a twofold responsibility: take excellent care of the children in our custody, and place them in the United States with parents or family members,” he said during a conference call.

“The Unaccompanied Alien Children Program was never intended, however, to be a foster-care system with more than 10,000 children in custody, which is the case today, at an immediate cost to the federal taxpayer of over $1 billion a year.”

This spring, the number of migrants arrested for crossing the border has jumped, topping 50,000 for the past two months, leaving President Trump fuming at Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and prompting an order to “close” the border.

Administration officials have responded by ordering criminal prosecutions of anyone who crosses the border illegally, even those who bring children with them, a policy that has pushed the use of HHS shelter capacity to 95 percent and increased the number of children in HHS custody to 10,773, up 21 percent in the past month alone.

HHS has about 100 shelters in 14 states and is preparing to add several thousand more beds.

Children who do not receive a sponsor, or whose potential sponsors are deemed ineligible, may be transferred to long-term care — typically at federally licensed group homes and shelters.

Advocates say those settings are typically less restrictive, and in some cases, children are allowed to attend public schools in their communities while their immigration cases play out in federal courts.

White House officials say they are facing a “border crisis” and bold action is needed, however harsh the measures may seem. Chief of Staff John F. Kelly has described family separation as an unpalatable but necessary deterrent to illegal migration.

“Children should not be used as a deterrent,” said Dona Abbott, director of refu­gee and immigrant program services at Bethany Christian Services, which has provided foster care to 1,400 children since 2014 at shelters and homes in Maryland and Michigan.

Abbott said her organization in recent weeks has received more “tender age” children — kids younger than 5 — who display signs of “separation trauma.”

“They’re crying for their parents, asking for their parents, having nightmares. They complain of stomach aches and headaches. They’re unable to sleep, or they sleep all the time,” Abbott said. “These are the typical symptoms of young children who have been separated from a parent.”

Foster-care providers try to maintain communication with a child’s parent, who may be held in jail hundreds of miles away, said Abbott, and are panicked about when they will reunite.

“We try to provide the children with some comfort and routine, so they don’t have any more surprises,” said Abbott. “What they need is a lot of predictability and a lot of safety.”