PHOENIX – Every night for three weeks, after finishing a long day at work, a Guatemalan father of two living in Kansas has dialed the same number, hoping to find his two daughters. Every night he is put on hold, sometimes over an hour and a half. If he doesn’t give up and ends up reaching someone, he gets the same answer: be patient.
His daughters, aged 9 and 13, are in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS, and they are safe, operators of the hotline tell him. But they can’t reveal the location of the girls, telling her it’s confidential information. Instead, they tell him that he has to wait until a case manager contacts him to begin the process of bringing them home.
“It’s a situation that requires waiting, patience and serenity,” the operator of the hotline told the man in Spanish on Wednesday evening.
The interaction only left him more frustrated and upset.
“He says that’s always the way it is,” said an interpreter of the father. “He says it’s frustrating, because he desperately needs to find out about his daughters, but there’s nothing he can do about it.”
The girls, like nearly 20,000 other children in HHS care, recently immigrated to the United States as part of a wave of unaccompanied children that has pushed the boundaries of the American immigration system.
Earlier this year, HHS was able to match about one case manager to 12 children, but the number of children per manager has skyrocketed as the agency scrambles to hire more people who can look after the well. -being of every child and placement in homes with parents or sponsors, said a spokesperson for HHS. The spokesperson did not provide the current ratio.
However, the amount of time children spend in HHS care appears to be decreasing slightly. Children released by HHS last week spent an average of 31 days in custody, a source familiar with the data said, up from 37 days in February and 42 days in January, according to data provided by HHS.
“They did what we couldn’t do,” said a former Trump administration official who faced a lack of space in HHS care in 2019 as wait times exceeded 50 days . But, the official said, the number of unaccompanied children in HHS care is expected to reach more than 35,000 by May, and that could easily overwhelm the system without more funding from Congress.
Spokesmen for HHS and Customs and Border Protection did not respond to requests for comment.
For parents trying to locate their children via the hotline, the system can already seem overwhelmed. Although an HHS spokesperson said the average wait time was less than a minute, many calls are put on hold immediately after being answered, say lawyers and advocates who call the hotline with their clients.
Dr Amy Cohen, a child psychiatrist and executive director of Every Last One, an advocacy group helping the Guatemalan father in Kansas, said the man’s frustration and despair were similar to what she had seen with many other parents who live in the United States trying to locate their children.
“We have treated hundreds of people in the past two months. We get calls from parents who cannot find their children,” Cohen said. “Traditionally, the parent would hear from their child or from a case manager within a few days. Now they go weeks and weeks without hearing from anyone.”
For HHS, putting children in the hands of parents or sponsors is imperative to opening up a new space to accommodate the growing number of children crossing the border and to ease safeguards at border patrol posts. Parents in the country illegally are treated the same as those who are documented when it comes to locating their children in HHS custody, and the Biden administration has given assurances that their information will not be shared with immigration and customs services.
‘I called three times a day’
Some parents, like a Venezuelan immigrant named Andrea, took matters into their own hands. Andrea traveled from Santa Ana, California to Phoenix this week after learning that HHS had placed her son in foster care.
She had left her 6-year-old son Juan Felipe with his stepfather and a grandmother in Venezuela to flee to the United States after, she said, receiving death threats. Juan Felipe later came and entered the United States with his stepfather and grandmother. But he was treated as an unaccompanied child, meaning he was separated from adults and sent to border guards, then to HHS.
At first his mother couldn’t know where he was.
“Nobody wanted to tell me anything,” she said. “I called three times a day: morning, afternoon and evening.”
Then when Juan Felipe refused to eat or sleep, she got a call from HHS and learned he was in foster care in Phoenix. She traveled here immediately.
Andrea waited all day, hugging the teddy bear she had brought for her son. Then he was finally released to her.
“He said he never wanted to be separated again,” she said after their reunification.