A new AP investigation has identified more than two dozen migrant youth who faced abuse and neglect in the U.S. while waiting for their cases to move through immigration courts after federal authorities weakened standards for vetting sponsors.
Tens of thousands of children from Central America have made the long journey north and across the border in recent years, fleeing gang violence and instability back home – many traveling alone.
Once here, they face a long and complicated process to seek asylum. And without a parent, many are placed with other families or adults.
But that can present new risks for the children.
"Experts told us this may be the tip of the iceberg," said Garance Burke, national investigative reporter at the AP.
"The government was so overwhelmed by the number of children appearing at the U.S. Southwest border that they started weakening some of the child protection processes that had been in place, sometimes for years, in order to really speed these children out of government shelters and into sponsors homes," said Burke.
Those changes included stopping fingerprinting for most adults and eliminating FBI criminal history checks for many sponsors, according to memos obtained by the AP under FOIA requests.
"One of the consequences of those weakened child protection policies is that some children ended up with adults who really were not responsible," said Burke. That led, in some cases, to sexual abuse, neglect and labor trafficking.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has said that no shortcuts were taken and that overall, the program does "an amazing job."
"I know we learn from lessons and keep trying to improve the system to ensure the child is placed in a safe place, and I'm confident the vast majority of the kids are," Mark Weber, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, told the AP.