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Characteristics of Separated Children in ORR's Care: June 27, 2018–November 15, 2020


OIG initiated this review to inform policymakers, stakeholders, and the public about the number and circumstances of separated children who have been placed in the care of ACF's Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) since June 26, 2018. Most children referred to ORR by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have surrendered to or been apprehended by immigration officials while entering the United States without a parent or legal guardian. However, some children enter the United States with a parent or legal guardian but are subsequently separated from that adult by DHS officials and then referred to ORR. (We refer to these two categories of children as "non-separated children" and "separated children," respectively.) Prior OIG work identified challenges that ORR faced in addressing the mental health needs of separated children and efficiently identifying appropriate sponsors for their release.


We obtained and analyzed ORR's data about all children referred to ORR between June 27, 2018 (the day after a Federal district court halted most family separations, subject to certain exceptions) and November 15, 2020 (the date of the most recent complete data available at the time of our review). We identified all children's demographic characteristics, lengths of stay, and release outcomes, and we compared separated children to all other children referred to ORR (i.e., non separated children). For separated children, we analyzed data that DHS provided to ORR to identify and categorize the reasons children were separated from parents or legal guardians. Finally, we interviewed ORR program staff about their observations regarding family separation as well as challenges that they experienced in receiving from DHS complete and accurate information about parents' backgrounds.


In total, 1,178 children were separated from a parent or legal guardian and referred to ORR's care between June 27, 2018, and November 15, 2020. Separated children were 9 years old on average, with more than a quarter under 5 years old. In comparison, non-separated children were 15 years old on average, with only 3 percent under 5 years old. We also found that 70 percent of separated children referred to ORR had been separated from a parent by immigration officials because of that parent's criminal history. The types of criminal histories that prompted separations varied widely, from homicide to traffic-related offenses.

Finally, we found that separated children spent longer in ORR's care and were less likely than non-separated children to be released to a sponsor (i.e., an adult in the United States who can assume custody). Separated children were also more likely than non-separated children to have been released through voluntary departure to their home countries. Of the 1,178 separated children referred to ORR during the period we reviewed, ORR ultimately reunified 182 children (15 percent) with the parent from whom the child was separated.


DHS—not ORR—decides when to separate a parent and child upon entry into the United States. However, ORR must determine whether the child can be safely reunified with the separated parent and identify an alternative sponsor if needed. Further, although separated children make up a small proportion of the population ORR serves, they have different characteristics and face substantial challenges. With recent increases in the number of children entering ORR's care, it is important to understand why children are referred to ORR. OIG's findings provide information to policymakers, stakeholders, and the public about family separations after June 26, 2018, and the characteristics, circumstances, and release outcomes of separated children placed in ORR's care.