A federal judge has blasted a declaration from a senior official at the Department of Health and Human Services who claimed that using a streamlined approach for reuniting children with their parents separated at the border could place the kids in danger.
“Unfortunately, HHS appears to be operating in a vacuum, entirely divorced from the undisputed circumstances of the case,” San Diego-based Judge Dana Sabraw wrote in an order after the HHS declaration was filed late Friday.
In a radical departure from his typical tone to date, the judge – a George W. Bush appointee – went on to suggest the department’s filing was an attempt to “provide cover to Defendants for their own conduct in the practice of family separation, and the lack of foresight and infrastructure necessary to remedy the harms caused by that practice.”
After Friday’s dust-up, Sabraw ordered the government to have an HHS representative in the court hearing Monday in addition to the usual Justice Department attorney.
The declaration Friday from Deputy Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Chris Meekins said, “I recognize that the likely result of implementing the Court’s order through the inter-departmental reunification plan will be faster reunifications of a significant number of children with their parents. At the same time, however that process will likely result in the placing of children with adults who falsely claimed to be their parents or into potentially abusive environments. While I am fully committed to comply with this Court’s order, I do not believe that the placing of children into such situations is consistent with the mission of HHS or my core values.”
In the declaration, Meekins said HHS has suspended further efforts to verify those claiming to be the parents of children under 5 years old and has stopped DNA testing of possible parents in an effort to meet the court-imposed deadline of July 26 to reunify those kids with their parents.
Sabraw said both of those actions are “categorically inconsistent with the Court’s oral and written rulings, which explicitly require Defendants to make parentage determinations prior to reunification, and to use DNA testing, if necessary to make those determinations.”
The judge said there must be determinations confirming parentage and assessing the parents’ fitness to receive children and the children’s safety before any parent is reunited with his or her child – and that his order is not incompatible with moving quickly on the reunifications.
“Mr. Meekins’ Declaration is entirely inconsistent with explicit pronouncements from the highest levels of the Government and this Court’s orders,” the judge said. He added, “Mr. Meekins’ Declaration casts doubt on what the Court believed was a mutual understanding, and calls into question the Court’s previous statements that Defendants are acting in good faith in their attempts to reunify Class Members by the currently imposed deadline.”
There are more than 2,500 children who could need to be reunited with their parents in the next two weeks after officials separated them at the border, according to the latest government estimate. That number could change as parents’ eligibility for reunification is verified, officials have noted.
HHS spokesperson Evelyn Stauffer said in a statement that the department is working “tirelessly” to achieve the goals of ensuring the welfare of the separated children and meeting the court’s orders.
“The department has been operating in good faith and earnestly trying to comply with court orders, including the rapidly approaching deadline for reunification,” Stauffer said. “Our interpretation of the court’s order is that HHS must make a determination of parentage, fitness, and safety before reunifying families, but that HHS need not undertake the fuller process of vetting for children’s safety that HHS would ordinarily conduct in its operations.”
“In the interests of transparency and cooperation, the department felt it necessary in our filings on Friday to share with the court our view that meeting the deadline would mean truncating the process we might have otherwise followed,” she said.
The filing revealed that after a public court hearing Friday that preceded Meekins’ declaration, the judge held a second phone conference with attorneys to go over his orders and sentiments.
At the hearing, Sabraw said: “HHS is off in the Hinterlands and is either unwilling or unaware of what’s going on in this case with this court’s orders.”
The judge imposed several deadlines on the government before the July 26 deadline for reunifications, including sharing lists of parents and children by Thursday.