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Tuesday, March 28, 2023

PERSPECTIVE: DHS & HHS/ORR Sidestepping Use of National Mass Care Strategy in Immigrant Children Crisis

I used to work for DHS and count EMs as dear friends. It gives me no pleasure to write this blog. Today the NRCC sits dark and there is a humanitarian crisis involving thousands of children, including infants and toddlers.

At this very moment, these children are being managed by government contractors whose expertise in “sheltering” children is focused on the judicial system of juvenile detention while our civilian system’s National Response Framework (ESF-6 Mass Care), the US crisis management doctrine sits on the sidelines.

For years DHS worked to include lessons learned from countless mass care events to compile them into the National Mass Care Strategy. This covers topics such as family reunification, case management. FEMA has experience in working to support children who cross the border without parents or guardians under the NRF non-Stafford events annex. Under ESF-6, NGOs and child care advocates can gain access and provide services to separated children and families.

Any state or local official can activate ESF-6 to convene federal, state, local, NGO, faith based and private sector partners to aid in the support and reunification of separated children. Local officials can demand that HHS/ORR participate in this multi-agency, multi-stakeholder process, especially of a shelter is located in their jurisdiction in a commercially leased space.

HHS/ORR and DHS are deliberately not using this multi-agency, multi-stakeholder tool to limit access and transparency to the public. DHS and HHS/ORR effectively lock out NGOs such as Save the Children and Catholic Charities, Child Protection Advocates and Immigration advocates such as Texas RAICES. The core tenant of the National Mass Care Strategy is that no agency or organization goes it alone.

Right now HHS/ORR has the bravado that they think they can procure their way to providing humanitarian response for separated children.

HHS/ORR is going it alone.

It feels like those days immediately after Katrina landed. DHS staff waited for the Secretary to sign that Katrina was a “Disaster of National Significance”. It didn’t get signed until Tuesday afternoon. By then, it was too late.

That’s what it feels like right now. Once pictures and videos come from the rooms of infants and toddlers start leaking from behind the walls of these for profit contractors, another wave of crisis will be apparent.

RIGHT NOW - US Border Governors, Mayors and County leaders can activate their Emergency Operations Centers. They can start to lead coordination under ESF-6, especially at the local level where there are separated children shelters operating in commercial space. Local officials could demand HHS/ORR participate in ESF-6 to ensure a multi-agency, multi-stakeholder process.

I’m not saying its perfect. But its a plan. Its a system. Billions of dollars are behind its development and EMs and its mass care partners exercise it all the time. If HHS/ORR would have used it to begin with case work could have been coordinated, family reunification plans could be coordinated through partners and the worlds leading child protection advocates (both medical, community and legal) can be there to expedite services for children to be able to reunite with their families.

Even with the executive order, it could be months before children can be returned to their parents, if at all.

We need to activate the National Response Framework ESF-6 Mass Care to deliver to open access, transparency and care for separated children and their families.

If you are an EM, talk to your boss — make it happen. Light up those EOCs. Partners and the private sector, knock on the door of your EOC and ask why there isn’t an ESF-6 activation.

These children need our help.

Open that door to pressure HHS/ORR into a open, multi-agency, multi-stakeholder process.


The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email [email protected] Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

Heather Blanchard
Heather Blanchard is co-founder of CrisisCommons, a global community of volunteers from technology, crisis response organizations, government agencies, and citizens that are working together to build and use technology tools to help respond to disasters and improve resiliency and response before a crisis.

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