US government moves to end long-standing agreement on migrant child custody oversight News
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US government moves to end long-standing agreement on migrant child custody oversight

The US government filed a motion on Friday to partially end a 27-year-old agreement that requires the federal government to comply with court supervision about the treatment of migrant children in its custody.

This action follows the recent publication by the Health and Human Services Department of its own regulation on protective measures, slated to take effect on July 1. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra highlighted that these rules will establish “clear standards for the care and treatment of unaccompanied [migrant] children.”

The government argued in its Friday motion that the ongoing court supervision has become obsolete and that implementing new regulations offers a more effective means to guarantee the safety of children. “Twenty-seven years later, there is ample reason to believe that the [Flores Settlement Agreement’s] goals have been achieved. The Court should terminate the FSA as to HHS,” the government wrote.

The 1997 Flores agreement originated from legal disputes spanning over a decade between attorneys for migrant children’s rights and the U.S. government, sparked by widespread reports of mistreatment in the 1980s. Attorneys for four teenagers, including Jenny Lisette Flores, a 15-year-old from El Salvador, filed a lawsuit detailing how Flores and the other plaintiffs were detained by the government for prolonged periods, frequently in facilities with unrelated adults, and deprived of education and adequate medical care.

The agreement established guidelines for the detention, care, and release of minors. It requires migrant children to be promptly released to family, a child welfare program, or a suitable adult if family reunification isn’t feasible. In most instances, children released under these conditions are placed with close relatives while their immigration cases proceed.

In cases where release isn’t viable due to safety considerations, the agreement stipulates that minors should be held in the least restrictive appropriate environment.

Leecia Welch, deputy litigation director at Children’s Rights, which represents children in the case, said Friday’s filing “leaves these children at risk of harm without anyone to look after them. Having listened firsthand to the horror stories of hundreds of children over the past eight years, I shudder to think what will happen when we are gone.”

The government says that the upcoming rule, effective in July, “implements and goes beyond” the standards outlined in the Flores agreement. The new regulation establishes an independent ombudsman’s office, sets minimum standards for temporary overflow shelters, and formalizes enhancements in screening procedures for releasing children to families and sponsors, as well as for legal assistance.

Judge Dolly Gee, chief US district judge for the Central District of California, who oversees the Flores agreement, would have to approve the government’s Friday’s motion to terminate the Flores agreement.