January 3, 2006
Secretary Michael O. Leavitt
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
200 Independence Avenue, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20201
Dear Secretary Leavitt:
We, the undersigned organizations and individuals, write in response to your September 23, 2005 letter, enclosed for your convenience, to the Honorable Representative Christopher H. Smith reiterating your support for the Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) policy of referring information about child victims of trafficking to the Department of Justice (DOJ) or the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and requiring a law enforcement endorsement before issuing eligibility letters for benefits and services. We oppose this policy because it is in direct contravention of section 107(b) of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) which prohibits child victims of severe forms of trafficking from being required to cooperate with law enforcement in order to receive life-saving assistance.
Prominent members of Congress have expressed their concern and opposition to this policy in the enclosed July 26, 2005 letter addressed to you. Their letter indicated that Section 107(b) exempts trafficked children from law enforcement cooperation, hi enacting the TVPA, Congressional intent was to allow children to receive assistance regardless of their ability or willingness to participate in an investigation and prosecution of their traffickers. Forcing a child to participate in an interview with a law enforcement agent in order to receive certification is equivalent to forcing the child to cooperate with law enforcement.
As outlined in your letter to Representative Smith, you indicated that HHS will consult with DOJ and DHS about the issuance of eligibility letters. You stated that children will not be required to interview with a law enforcement officer. Service providers have identified situations where law enforcement agencies insist upon interviewing the child because of the referral from HHS and where HHS will not make a decision regarding the status of the child until they have received a formal endorsement from law enforcement. HHS provides information to law enforcement such as the child's affidavit and other identifying information. This referral results in a law enforcement investigation where agents will seek to interview the child. Thus, in practice, children are often coerced into working with law enforcement because they have contacted HHS for access to services. If HHS requires children to endure extensive interviews with law enforcement agencies in order to receive services, fewer and fewer children are likely to receive the benefits available to them.
Victims and their advocates may avoid working with HHS because of the child's fear of participating in an investigation of the trafficker. Child victims are likely to stay in their lifethreatening situations because they fear interrogation or being forced to testify against their abusers. If a child is forced to cooperate with law enforcement, the child's family could be at risk for retribution. Service providers have identified children who report that traffickers continue to harass their family, inquire into the child's whereabouts, and threaten to "collect the hard way." They are not only terrified because of what they have experienced; they are shouldering an enormous burden to protect the safety and well-being of their family. Requiring a child to talk to law enforcement about his/her experiences may also result in the prosecution of a close family member and a child should not be forced to testify against his family in order to receive emergency services.
In one example, a child had been recruited and forced to work long hours in a restaurant. Over the years of exploitation, her trafficker repeatedly threatened to deport her if the child ever spoke the truth of her exploitation. Furthermore, the minor was instructed that because she was undocumented, the police would deport her rather than listen to her side of the story. Over the years, her distrust of law enforcement increased daily. Further, the child was part of a very small ethnic community and feared what would happen to her if law enforcement initiated an investigation against her trafficker and the trafficker was not ultimately convicted and jailed. The child's attorney requested benefits on her behalf from HHS. HHS, however, would not grant benefits without approval from the Department of Justice or some form of law enforcement endorsement. The attorney was told that the child would have to submit to a law enforcement interview if she were to receive the benefits she desperately needed. While that interview resulted in the child receiving benefits, it required her to sit in a room with a law enforcement agent carrying a firearm. It also required her to respond to follow-up pressure regarding filing a case against the trafficker.
Children should not be forced to participate in a law enforcement investigation in order to become eligible to receive emergency services such as housing, cash assistance, Medicaid and food stamps. Service providers should have the ability to provide for the child's emergency needs instead of having to persuade the child to speak with law enforcement before her immediate needs have been met. If the child has not yet received an eligibility letter, he or she is not yet eligible for the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program and it is not clear where social service providers should house the children during the investigation which could last several weeks or even months.
Your letter indicates that HHS will issue an eligibility letter if it receives credible information regarding the situation of the child. If a child does not wish to work with law enforcement, it is not clear what information HHS would require to issue an eligibility letter. HHS should issue guidance stating that a child's guardian or her attorney can present information to HHS about the child's trafficking situation. HHS should independently evaluate this information without referring the case to law enforcement so as not to force the child to participate in a law enforcement investigation before he or she is stable enough to do so.
To date, only 82 trafficked children have received eligibility letters and only 46 of those have been referred for the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program. HHS's policy of requiring children to work with law enforcement further erodes the tenuous trust between child victims and HHS, and makes victims more reluctant to seek the help they desperately need. The impact of this policy on this vulnerable population will continue to be devastating.
We urge you to cease requiring that child victims receive a recommendation from federal law enforcement prior to issuing letters of eligibility for benefits and services from HHS.
Signed by the following organizations and individuals:
Amnesty International USA
American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA)
Boat People SOS
Catholic Health Association
Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC)
Conference of Major Superiors of Men (CMSM)
ECPAT-USA (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes-USA, Inc.)
International Rescue Committee
Kurdish Human Rights Watch, Inc.
Leadership Conference of Women Religious
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service
Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns
National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd
Sisters of Mercy of the Americas Justice Team
United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children
API Legal Outreach, San Francisco, California
Ayuda, Inc., Washington, D.C.
Break the Chain Campaign, Washington, D.C.
Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, Los Angeles, California
Commonwealth Catholic Charities, Richmond, Virginia
Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose Leadership Team, California
Dominican Sisters of San Rafael, San Rafael, California
Freedom House, Detroit, Michigan
International Institute of St. Louis, St. Louis, Missouri
Leadership Conference of Women Religious
Legal Services to Children, San Francisco, California
Na Loio Immigrant Rights and Public Interest Legal Center, Honolulu, Hawaii
Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, Seattle, Washington
Safe Horizon, New York, New York
Sisters of Mercy of the Americas Justice Team, Illinois
Sisters of the Holy Names, California Province
Bette Gambonini, BVM, Sisters of Charity, BVM West Region
Theresa Caluori, BVM, Sisters of Charity, BVM West Region
Chanpone Okamura, Oregon
Rev. Daniel J. Bergner, SDS, DSW, Executive Director, Commonwealth Catholic Charities, Richmond, Virginia
Holly S. Cooper, Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, Florence, Arizona
Janet Hinshaw-Thomas, PRIME - Ecumenical Commitment to Refugees, Lansdowne, PA
S. Jean Schafer, Sisters of the Divine Savior Anti-Trafficking Project
S. Sheila Novak, Sisters of the Divine Savior Anti-Trafficking Project
Maggie Niebler, Esq., HIAS & Council Migration Service of Philadelphia
Martha Rickey, Children's Attorney, Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project
Sister Mary McKay
Theresa E. Barrett, LIRS Ambassador, Baltimore, Maryland
Cc: Daniel Schneider, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
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