Unaccompanied Children: Actions Needed to Improve Grant Application Reviews and Oversight of Care Facilities
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
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
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.
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.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Office of Refugee Resettlement||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).||
HHS concurred with this recommendation. In June and July 2020, ORR published four new grant announcements, which it updated to require that applicants be licensed at the time of their application and provide documentation of their license in order to be considered for a grant. These new announcements also require applicants to report any allegations/concerns of abuse and/or neglect, as well as any denial, suspension, and/or revocation of their license. In April 2021, HHS stated that ORR was working on assessing which requirements would be included in future grant announcements, and was concerned that requiring a state license at the time of award could potentially deter new applicants from applying for ORR grants. We believe that the updated language in the 2020 announcements is a promising first step toward clarifying the information applicants must provide regarding their state licensing status and any allegations or concerns. However, we found that these grant announcements did not include clarification on two key points: the time period for which any allegations or concerns should be reported, and whether applicants operating multiple facilities should report allegations and concerns that have occurred at any of their facilities, or only those at facilities specified in the application. In addressing these points, ORR should also clarify whether applicants should include information on any facilities licensed in other states. In addition, if ORR decides not to retain the new requirement to be licensed prior to applying in future grant announcements, it should clarify how applicants that have not yet obtained a license should demonstrate license eligibility in their application. As of July 2022, we await further action on this recommendation.
|Office of Refugee Resettlement||
Priority Rec.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).
HHS concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2022, ORR had updated its guide for project officers reviewing grant applications to enhance instructions for assessing licensing information included in grant applications. For example, HHS's guidance document instructs the project officer to determine whether the applicant is currently licensed and in good standing in the state in which they are proposing to provide services. Project officers are instructed to take steps, including searching state licensing agency websites or reaching out directly to state licensing agencies, if information is unavailable online, to verify the grantee's license, and determine whether they have any disciplinary actions against them. Additionally, this guidance requires project officers to request documentation from an applicant whose license has been restricted, suspended, or revoked. HHS has also incorporated this guidance into the training curriculum for project officers.
|Office of Refugee Resettlement||
Priority Rec.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).
HHS concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2022, ORR updated its guidance for project officers on conducting and documenting reviews of grantee performance. ORR updated its standard operating procedure for ORR project officers and Office of Grants Management staff reviewing grantees' quarterly Performance Progress Reports. Under the procedure, staff are to use information from these reviews to ensure grantee performance is satisfactory and determine whether funding should be continued for another budget period. The procedure states that project officers should pay particular attention to grantees' descriptions of any issues they experienced in the past reporting period, including any and all documented state licensing allegations or concerns, and any corrective actions issued by ORR or others, and the steps the grantee took to resolve these issues. The procedure also states that project officers are to complete a Grants Monitoring Statement documenting their review. HHS has also incorporated this guidance into the training curriculum for project officers.
|Office of Refugee Resettlement||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).||
HHS concurred with this recommendation. In April 2021, HHS stated that ORR had collaborated with the Office of Management and Budget to add a reporting requirement on state licensing citations to grantees' quarterly performance reports, and that this reporting requirement was under review. We will consider closing this recommendation when these efforts are complete and, as of July 2022, await information to update these efforts.
|Office of Refugee Resettlement||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).||
HHS concurred with this recommendation. HHS stated that ORR would develop guidance and training to ensure project officers understand grantee reporting requirements regarding state licensing citations. In April 2021, HHS stated that ORR continued to make progress implementing this recommendation, but had encountered challenges with staffing shortages related to responding to the recent surge of unaccompanied children entering the country. We will consider closing this recommendation when these efforts are complete and await the agency's progress.
|Office of Refugee Resettlement||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).||
HHS concurred with this recommendation. HHS stated that information sharing between ORR and state licensing agencies would benefit both parties, but noted that implementation of this recommendation would depend on the state agencies' willingness and ability to share information. HHS said that ORR will reach out to other ACF program offices and state licensing agencies, and will work to identify information sharing goals and potential mechanisms to facilitate communication. In April 2021, HHS stated that ORR was still working on identifying information and shared goals and potential mechanisms to facilitate communication between ORR and state agencies. We recognize that states may vary in their interest and ability to share information with ORR. However, most states we surveyed were interested in some additional information sharing. We encourage ORR to work with each state individually to develop a mutually beneficial information sharing relationship. As of July 2022, we await more information on the agency's progress.
|Office of Refugee Resettlement||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).||
HHS concurred with this recommendation and stated that ORR would develop and maintain a list of points of contact for each state agency that licenses an ORR-funded facility. In April 2021, HHS stated that ORR had established points of contact with California, Texas, Arizona, and New York and would continue to develop points of contact with other states that license ORR grantees. We will consider closing this recommendation when the agency completes this effort and await more information the agency's progress.
|Office of Refugee Resettlement||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:
HHS concurred with this recommendation. With respect to auditing facilities' compliance with ORR standards on preventing and responding to sexual assault, as required under the Interim Final Rule, HHS reiterated ORR's plans to solicit a new contract for these audits. In April 2021, HHS stated that ORR expected to award this contract in the third quarter of fiscal year 2021 and would stipulate that within the base year of this contract, the contractor will complete audits for all ORR facilities that were open but did not receive an audit during the initial contract. After the base year, HHS said the contractor will be required to complete about 65 audits per year. We urge ORR to work as expeditiously as possible to ensure the remaining audits are carried out, given that it has already missed the initial deadline by over two years. With respect to conducting monitoring visits to each facility every 2 years in accordance with ORR policy, HHS stated in April 2021 that, due to COVID-19 and other challenges, ORR did not anticipate meeting this goal by the end of 2021. HHS also said that ORR had piloted using technology to conduct remote monitoring of facilities, and would continue to leverage technology where appropriate to meet its monitoring responsibilities. We recognize the challenges caused by the pandemic. With respect to future efforts, we encourage ORR to resume in-person visits when it is safe to do so, and to continue monitoring the team's staffing levels to ensure it can consistently meet its goals going forward. Finally, with respect to reporting noncompliance to facilities within 30 days of the site visit in accordance with ORR policy, in April 2021 HHS stated that ORR had developed a best practice guide for monitoring staff to help improve and standardize the monitoring report submission timeline. A copy of this guide provided by HHS included tips for planning and time management to help staff meet the 30-day goal. HHS said that the suspension of monitoring visits for most of fiscal year 2020 due to COVID-19 and ORR's shift to piloting remote monitoring had prevented them from fully assessing and evaluating the effectiveness of the best practice guide and identifying any improvement needs. As of July 2022, we await further progress in these areas.