Changes made to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) website before May 23, 2019, foreshadowed policy changes related to unaccompanied migrant children that were not announced, even to ORR grantees, until May 30, 2019. As with other changes the Web Integrity Project has documented, such as language alterations on the website of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services, some of the changes made to ORR’s website foretold later announcements of new policy. In this brief, we document those changes and identify additional website changes that may foreshadow future policy directions.
The Policy Announcement
ORR, an office within the Administration of Children and Families (ACF), which is a part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), provides services to refugees, asylees and other recently arrived populations. ORR is responsible for the care of unaccompanied migrant children.
In late May and early June, 2019, HHS announced a series of policy changes related to unaccompanied migrant children in the care of ORR. As reported in the Washington Post, on May 30, 2019, HHS sent an email to grantees providing ORR-funded care for unaccompanied minors stating that “federal funds released on or after May 22, 2019” could not be used to pay for “recreational or educational activities” for children in their care. On June 5, 2019, a statement from HHS set out more limitations, explaining that ORR had “instructed grantees to begin scaling back or discontinuing awards for UAC (unaccompanied minor) activities that are not directly necessary for the protection of life and safety, including education services, legal services and recreation.” The administration explained these changes in terms of funding shortages caused by “a dramatic spike” in the number of unaccompanied children crossing the border.
Before these policy changes were announced, they were foreshadowed in changes made to the “Unaccompanied Alien Children Frequently Asked Questions” and “Services Provided” pages of the ORR website.
Earlier Website Changes that Foreshadowed the Policy Announcement
By May 18, 2019, ORR had altered the “Unaccompanied Alien Children Frequently Asked Questions” page (Webpage 1) to remove a large swath of content and to reword the remaining content. Compare Internet Archive Wayback Machine (IAWM) captures from April 13, 2019 and May 30, 2019.
The content removed from Webpage 1 included content directly related to the policy changes announced on May 30 and June 5, 2019. The questions and corresponding answers to “Do children in HHS care have access to lawyers?” and “What kind of conditions do children in HHS-funded facilities experience?” were removed. The answers referenced the Flores settlement (which set the standards of care for unaccompanied minor children), “Know Your Rights” presentations, educational services and recreational activities “such as television and sports.” Also removed from the answers were images of children learning in a classroom, a recreation room with pool and foosball tables, and a bedroom with clean and colorful beds.
In addition to alterations of content that clearly foreshadowed the policy announcements, changes made to Webpage 1 removed references to detained children’s access to telephones and other communications, the provision of mental health care, the use of cheek swabs and DNA testing, media and congressional access to facilities, and sexual abuse. The language used in the content remaining on the page was hardened, with the terms “child” and “children” being replaced with the acronym UAC (standing for “unaccompanied alien child”) in 11 instances.
By May 23, 2019, ORR had altered information related to legal services on another page on the ORR website. From the “Services Provided” page (Webpage 2), ORR removed introductory text that emphasized that “ORR places children in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child” and reorganized and re-wrote text under the “Legal Services” heading, removing references to “pro bono representation,” “ORR-funded legal representation” and “court appearance support.” See IAWM captures from March 26, 2019 and May 23, 2019.
In addition to alterations that foreshadowed policy changes, changes made to Webpage 2 echo changes made to Webpage 1. Text related to detained children’s access to telephones was removed, as was a section about physical and mental health care. Language was hardened: 13 references to “UAC” were added to the page, while 14 references to “child” or “children” (not preceded by the term “unaccompanied alien”) were removed.
Other Website Changes: Collateral Damage or Signposts of Future Policy?
On both Webpage 1 and Webpage 2, content relating to access to communication and mental health care were removed.
On the topic of communications, on Webpage 1, images of children using telephones were removed (from the answer to “What kind of conditions do children in HHS-funded facilities experience?”). Also removed from Webpage 1 was the answer to the question “What are the procedures for children separated from their parents to communicate with each other?,” which explained that children communicate at least twice per week with family and as often as needed to their lawyer. From Webpage 2, the sentence “Children also have access to phones to contact family or legal services” was excised from the page.
References to mental healthcare were removed from Webpage 1, which used to list “physical and mental healthcare” as one of the services provided by HHS in the answer to the question “What kind of conditions do children in HHS-funded facilities experience?” On Webpage 2, ORR removed a section called “Physical and Mental Health Care,” which linked to a still-live page detailing the health screenings, mental health services, and provisions in place to ensure the safety of children.
We do not yet know what to make of the website changes about communications and mental health, which do not fit neatly into the recent policy announcements. Perhaps the removed content was merely collateral damage, taken down because of its close proximity to content directly related to new policy. Alternatively, the removals might be more meaningful, as signposts toward upcoming announcements. In the latter case, these website changes suggest that advocates, grantees, watchdogs and anyone interested in the treatment of unaccompanied minor children should be watching closely policies relating to access to communication and the provision of mental health services for unaccompanied minor children.
Sarah John is the director of research for the Sunlight Foundation. Sonja Williams contributed to this article.
This article was republished with the permission of the Web Integrity Project, a project of the Sunlight Foundation. Click here to access the original article, which includes a technical documentation of the changes on the ORR website.