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'Nobody would tell me anything': Immigrant parents struggle to find children in U.S. custody

One Guatemalan father in Kansas has called a hotline every night to find out where HHS is holding his two daughters. After weeks, he still has no answer.

PHOENIX — Every night for the past three weeks, after finishing a long day of work, a Guatemalan father of two living in Kansas dials the same number, hoping to find his two daughters. Every night, he's put on hold, sometimes for more than an hour and half. If he doesn't give up and eventually reaches someone, he gets the same answer: Be patient.

His daughters, ages 9 and 13, are in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS, and they are safe, the hotline operators tell him. But they can't give out the girls' location, telling him it is confidential information. Instead, they tell him he must wait for a case manager to contact him to begin the process of bringing them into his home.

"This is a situation that requires waiting, patience and serenity," the hotline operator told the man in Spanish on Wednesday night.

The interaction only left him more frustrated and upset.

"He says this is how it always goes," an interpreter for the father said. "He says it's frustrating, because he's desperate to find out about his girls, but he can't get anywhere with this."

The girls, like nearly 20,000 other children in HHS care, recently immigrated to the U.S. as part of a wave of unaccompanied children that has stretched the limits of the U.S. immigration system.

At the start of this year, HHS was able to match about one case manager to 12 children, but the number of children per manager has shot up as the agency scrambles to hire more people who can look after each child's welfare and placement in homes with parents or sponsors, an HHS spokesperson said. The spokesperson didn't provide the current ratio.

However, the time children spend in HHS custody appears to be dropping slightly. In the past week, children released by HHS had spent an average of 31 days in custody, said a source familiar with the data, down from 37 days in February and 42 days in January, according to data provided by HHS.

Andrea reunited with her son, Juan Felipe.NBC News

"They did what we couldn't do," said a former Trump administration official who dealt with a shortage of space in HHS care in 2019, when wait times exceeded 50 days. But, the official said, the number of unaccompanied children in HHS custody is expected to reach more than 35,000 in May, and it could easily overwhelm the system without more funding from Congress.

Spokespeople for HHS and Customs and Border Protection didn't respond to requests for comment.

For parents trying to find their children through the hotline, the system can already seem overwhelmed. Although an HHS spokesman said the average wait time is less than one minute, many calls are put on a long hold immediately after they are answered, say lawyers and advocates who call the hotline with their clients.

Dr. Amy Cohen, a child psychiatrist and executive director of Every Last One, an advocacy group helping the Guatemalan father in Kansas, said the man's frustration and desperation are similar to what she has seen with many other parents who are living in the U.S. and trying to find their children.

"We have dealt with hundreds in the past two months. We are getting calls from parents who can't find their children," Cohen said. "Traditionally, the parent would hear from their child or a case manager within a couple of days. Now they are going weeks and weeks without hearing from anybody."

For HHS, getting children into the hands of parents or sponsors is imperative to open up new space to accommodate the growing number of children crossing the border and to alleviate backups in Border Patrol stations. Parents in the country illegally are treated the same as those who are documented when it comes to reuniting with their children in HHS custody, and the Biden administration has given reassurances that their information won't be shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

'I would call three times a day'

Some parents, like a Venezuelan immigrant named Andrea, have taken matters into their own hands. She reached out to Cohen for help and the two traveled from Santa Ana, California, to Phoenix this week after Andrea got word that HHS had placed her son in foster care.

She had left her 6-year-old son, Juan Felipe, with his stepfather and a grandmother in Venezuela to escape to the U.S. after, she said, she received threats on her life. Juan Felipe came later and crossed into the U.S. with his stepfather and his grandmother. But he was treated as an unaccompanied child, which meant he was separated from the adults and sent to Border Patrol custody and then HHS.

From left, Juan Felipe's grandmother; his stepfather, Juan Felipe; his brother; and his mother, Andrea.NBC News

At first, his mother couldn't find out where he was.

"Nobody would tell me anything," she said. "I would call three times a day: in the morning, afternoon and evening."

Then, when Juan Felipe refused to eat or sleep, she got a call from HHS and learned that he was in foster care in Phoenix. She traveled to Arizona immediately and, with the help of Every Last One, negotiated for Juan Felipe's release.

Andrea waited all day, clutching the teddy bear she had brought for her son. Then he was finally released to her.

"He said he never wants to be separated again," she said after they were reunited.