Unaccompanied Children:

Actions Needed to Improve Grant Application Reviews and Oversight of Care Facilities

GAO-20-609: Published: Sep 15, 2020. Publicly Released: Oct 7, 2020.

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Contact:

Kathryn A. Larin
(202) 512-7215
larink@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) awards grants to provide care for unaccompanied children—those without legal immigration status or an available parent or guardian. The grants go to state-licensed organizations that provide shelter and other services.

HHS monitors these facilities to ensure they're keeping children safe, among other things. But it hasn't met its own targets for how frequently it visits facilities, and doesn't consistently share information with state agencies that license them.

Our recommendations include that HHS develop plans to meet its monitoring goals and share information with state agencies.

Number of facilities in each state that both received grants from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and had unaccompanied children in care as of July 2020

Map of the United States showing 22 states highlighted in blue with the number of facilities in parentheses below the state name.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Kathryn A. Larin
(202) 512-7215
larink@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

The Office of Refugee Resettlement's (ORR) grant announcements soliciting care providers for unaccompanied children—those without lawful immigration status and without a parent or guardian in the U.S. available to provide care and physical custody for them—lack clarity about what state licensing information is required. Further, ORR does not systematically confirm the information submitted by applicants or document a review of their past performance on ORR grants, when applicable, according to GAO's analysis of ORR documents and interviews with ORR officials. The grant announcements do not specify how applicants without a state license should show license eligibility—a criterion for receiving an ORR grant—or specify what past licensing allegations and concerns they must report. In addition, the extent to which ORR staff verify applicants' licensing information is unclear. In fiscal years 2018 and 2019, ORR awarded grants to approximately 14 facilities that were unable to serve children for 12 or more months because they remained unlicensed. In addition, ORR did not provide any documentation that staff conducted a review of past performance for the nearly 70 percent of applicants that previously held ORR grants. Without addressing these issues, ORR risks awarding grants to organizations that cannot obtain a state license or that have a history of poor performance.

State licensing agencies regularly monitor ORR-funded facilities, but according to GAO's survey of these agencies, their information sharing with ORR is limited (see figure). State licensing agencies and ORR staff both said that improved information sharing would benefit their monitoring of facilities. Without such improvements, ORR may lack information about ongoing issues at its facilities.

Key Survey Responses on Information-Sharing with the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) by the 23 State Agencies That Licensed ORR-Funded Facilities in Fall 2019

Key Survey Responses on Information-Sharing with the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) by the 23 State Agencies That Licensed ORR-Funded Facilities in Fall 2019

ORR requires grantees to take corrective action to address noncompliance it identifies through monitoring, but ORR has not met some of its monitoring goals or notified grantees of the need for corrective actions in a timely manner. For example, under ORR regulations, each facility is to be audited for compliance with standards to prevent and respond to sexual abuse and harassment of children by February 22, 2019, but by April 2020, only 67 of 133 facilities had been audited. In fiscal years 2018 and 2019, ORR also did not meet its policy goals to visit each facility at least every 2 years, or to submit a report to facilities on any corrective actions identified within 30 days of a visit. Without further action, ORR will continue to not meet its own monitoring goals, which are designed to ensure the safety and well-being of children in its care.

Why GAO Did This Study

ORR is responsible for the care and placement of unaccompanied children in its custody, which it provides through grants to state-licensed care provider facilities. ORR was appropriated $1.3 billion for this program in fiscal year 2020. GAO was asked to review ORR's grant making process and oversight of its grantees.

This report examines (1) how ORR considers state licensing issues and past performance in its review of grant applications; (2) state licensing agencies' oversight of ORR grantees, and how ORR and states share information; and (3) how ORR addresses grantee noncompliance. GAO reviewed ORR grant announcements and applications for fiscal years 2018 and 2019. GAO conducted a survey of 29 state licensing agencies in states with ORR facilities, and reviewed ORR monitoring documentation and corrective action reports. GAO also reviewed ORR guidance and policies, as well as relevant federal laws and regulations, and interviewed ORR officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making eight recommendations to ORR on improving clarity in its grant announcements, communication with state licensing agencies, and monitoring of its grantees. ORR agreed with all eight recommendations.

For more information, contact Kathryn A. Larin at (202) 512-7215 or larink@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Director of ORR should clarify in its grant announcements the information and supporting documentation applicants are required to provide in their grant applications with respect to their state licensing status, eligibility, and allegations and concerns. (Recommendation 1).

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Administration for Children and Families: Office of Refugee Resettlement

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Director of ORR should take steps to develop, and ensure that officials reviewing grant applications implement, a process to verify the accuracy and completeness of information reported by grant applicants on state licensing status, eligibility, allegations and concerns. (Recommendation 2).

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Administration for Children and Families: Office of Refugee Resettlement

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Director of ORR should ensure that the grant review process includes a documented review of applicants' past performance on ORR grants for those that have previously received grants to care for unaccompanied children. This could include, for example, a systematic review of previous quarterly and annual performance reports and a review of corrective actions issued by all ORR monitoring staff to all ORR-funded facilities previously operated by the applicant. (Recommendation 3).

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Administration for Children and Families: Office of Refugee Resettlement

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Director of ORR should clarify in its instructions to grantees the information they are required to report on state licensing citations in their quarterly performance reports. (Recommendation 4).

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Administration for Children and Families: Office of Refugee Resettlement

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Director of ORR should take steps, such as through guidance or training, to ensure that project officers clearly understand the requirement that grantees report state licensing citations at any of their facilities within 24 hours and include state licensing citations in their quarterly performance reports. (Recommendation 5).

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Administration for Children and Families: Office of Refugee Resettlement

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Director of ORR should work with state agencies that license ORR-funded facilities to develop a plan for mutual information sharing, including processes for ORR outreach to states during the grant application review process and ongoing information sharing on ORR and state monitoring processes and identified deficiencies. (Recommendation 6).

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Administration for Children and Families: Office of Refugee Resettlement

  7. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Director of ORR should ensure that ORR provides and maintains a current point of contact for each state agency that licenses ORR grantees to facilitate information sharing regarding ORR-funded facilities. (Recommendation 7).

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Administration for Children and Families: Office of Refugee Resettlement

  8. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Director of ORR should develop a plan—including roles, responsibilities, and timeframes—to guide and focus ORR's efforts to meet its goals to:

    • conduct an audit of each facility's compliance with ORR standards on preventing and responding to sexual assault, as required under the Interim Final Rule,
    • conduct on-site monitoring visits to each facility at least every 2 years in accordance with ORR policy, and
    • report any noncompliance to the facility within 30 days of the site visit, in accordance with ORR policy.

    (Recommendation 8).

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Administration for Children and Families: Office of Refugee Resettlement

 

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