The Trump administration does not know how many children were separated from a parent or guardian last year, but it's "thousands" more than the the 2,737 it has previously acknowledged, according to a new inspector general report .
"More children over a longer period of time were separated by immigration authorities and were referred to HHS for care than is commonly discussed in the public debate. How many more children were separated is unknown," said Ann Maxwell, Assistant Inspector General for Evaluation and Inspections.
The Department of Health and Human Services and the inspector general were unable to identify how many more children were separated because there were "significant challenges in identifying separated children."
"There was no effort underway to identify those children," Maxwell said, adding that "HHS faced significant challenges."
Officials estimated that "thousands of other children" were separated, received by HHS for care and released prior to the June 26, 2018, court order that required the government to identify and reunify certain separated children, and that children continued to be separated after the court order ordering reunification.
Agency officials noticed a "steep increase" in the number of separated children starting in the summer of 2017, said Maxwell.
At least 118 separated children were sent by the Department of Homeland Security to HHS for care from June 1 to Nov. 7, 2018.
DHS had previously said that separations continue to take place in cases when the parents have a criminal history or medical concerns.
"But in some cases DHS has provided HHS with limited information about the reasons for these separations," said Maxwell.
The report is part of a series that will be released this year.
"OIG responded quickly, dedicating an unprecedented level of resources to conduct multifaceted reviews," said Christi Grimm, chief of staff of HHS OIG, citing health and security issues that arose in 2018. A future report will review the challenges of reunification.
In response to the inspector general report, HHS Press Secretary Evelyn J. Stauffer said in part that the department "is committed to the accurate and transparent reporting of data" on the unaccompanied minor program and "welcomed the opportunity to cooperate" with the investigation.
"Our focus at HHS is always on the safety and best interest of each child. These are vulnerable children in difficult circumstances, and HHS treats its responsibility for each child with the utmost care," added Stauffer in a statement.
Last year, the Trump administration erected a temporary tent facility in Tornillo, Texas, to hold children who had arrived unaccompanied at the southwest border or been detained as a result of the administration's "zero-tolerance" policy.
The facility came under scrutiny last November when the HHS Inspector General Daniel R. Levinson warned of "significant vulnerabilities," including not properly vetting staff and a "dangerously low number of clinicians."
It has since seen a drop in population, as children have been placed with sponsors. An official with BCFS, the company that operates the Tornillo, Texas "tent city" facility for HHS, told CNN that there are no longer children left at that shelter. At its peak, Tornillo housed almost 3,000 migrant children. The vast majority have ended up in homes of vetted sponsors and about 300 were moved to other facilities while still in the sponsorship process, the official said.
The source tells CNN that the next move is to finish breaking down and removing structures from the site. They expect Tornillo to be completely shut down before the end of the month.
In December, the administration reversed a controversial policy that required that adult members of a sponsor's household to submit fingerprints to the FBI when applying to take in a child. Immigrant advocates argued that the practice dissuaded some of those who lived in mixed-status households to come forward, leaving children in shelters for extended periods of time.
Now, only sponsors must be fingerprinted and undergo background checks.
After a child is apprehended, he or she is turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services. The Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is within the HHS, is charged with caring for the children and placing them with a sponsor in the United States.
Customs and Border Protection apprehended about 50,000 unaccompanied children in fiscal year 2018, up from 41,435 in fiscal year 2017.