Portman, Carper, Miller-Meeks, Price Introduce Legislation to Ensure Safety of Unaccompanied Children at HHS Facilities

Legislation Stems From December 2020 Bipartisan PSI Report That Found HHS’s Shelter Grant Processes Failed To Protect Unaccompanied Children

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-OH), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Tom Carper (D-DE), along with U.S. Representatives Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-IA) and David Price (D-NC), introduced bicameral, bipartisan legislation to ensure that shelters operated by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that hold unaccompanied children are thoroughly vetted and licensed by the state in which they operate. 

This legislation would require facilities seeking a shelter grant from the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR)—an agency within HHS that is responsible for the care and placement of unaccompanied children—to be licensed by the state they are operating in and require grant applicants to disclose any adverse actions taken against them by a federal, state, or local government. Additionally, the legislation requires HHS to do its due diligence and collaborate with the appropriate state agencies and search respective state databases for any potential adverse actions taken against the applicant seeking a grant from HHS. 

The legislation stems from a bipartisan December 2020 report Senators Portman and Carper released as Chairman and Ranking Member of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) that identified HHS’s failures to conduct adequate oversight of companies seeking to operate shelters for unaccompanied children. The report found that HHS awarded ORR shelter grants to two companies with a documented history of failing to provide adequate care of children. As a result of their previous failures in caring for children and other regulatory issues, the two companies will never open their facilities, for which they received more than $32 million in funding from HHS. On March 26, 2021, Senators Portman and Carper sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra outlining best practices and suggestions from the report considering the historic influx of unaccompanied children during the ongoing border crisis. 

“I’m pleased to introduce this bipartisan legislation to ensure that shelters that care for unaccompanied children are fully licensed and that HHS makes better use of taxpayer funds,” said Portman. “As Chairman and Ranking Member of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, last year Senator Carper and I investigated the circumstances that led to HHS awarding millions of dollars in grants to care for unaccompanied children to organizations that had histories of child abuse or that could not get state licenses to care for children. We learned that HHS did not appropriately vet grant applicants, potentially endangering vulnerable children and wasting taxpayer dollars. HHS has voluntarily taken steps to improve their processes based on our report, but it’s important to codify these important reforms so these problems never happen again. I urge my colleagues to join us in supporting this common-sense legislation to address our findings and protect these vulnerable children and safeguard taxpayer funds.” 

“Almost one year ago, Senator Portman and I released a troubling report detailing the lack of proper federal government oversight of ORR shelter grant recipients – putting the safety of vulnerable migrant children at risk. We have a moral obligation to ensure the safety of children in our care,” said Carper. “Our legislation requires that our government take the steps needed to help protect these children and make sure they aren’t being subjected to negligent or inhumane facilities. I look forward to continuing working with the Administration on this critical issue, and encourage my Senate colleagues to join us in this effort.”  

“When I heard reports of the lack of oversight at ORR shelters, I knew that action was needed. Ensuring the safety and well-being of children in our care is simply the right thing to do,” said Miller-Meeks. “We need to work on increasing transparency and accountability at these facilities, and our bipartisan SHELTER Act is a step in the right direction. I am proud to partner with Congressman Price, and Senators Carper and Portman on this important issue.” 

“After being alerted to a troubling situation in my home state of North Carolina, I learned that a larger problem existed in how ORR was awarding shelter grant funding,” said Price. “It is a question of fiscal responsibility and a larger question about our nation’s immigration policy and the way people are being treated. I was troubled that our federal government would contract with an outfit whose license had been suspended by the state, and that this was part of a larger pattern. Unaccompanied children are some of the most vulnerable individuals in our care, and they deserve to be safely housed. While I am pleased that HHS has taken steps towards strengthening their grant application process, I think that we can do more. The SHELTER Act is a significant step forward, and I am proud to introduce this legislation today alongside Senators Carper and Portman and Representative Miller-Meeks.”  

The full text of the Senate legislation, the Safe Shelters Act of 2021, can be found here

The full text of the House legislation, the Safeguarding Homes by Ensuring Licensing and Transparency with Eligibility Requirements (SHELTER) Act, can be found here

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