Trump administration tries to clarify child reunification plan

Federal judge questions HHS' intentions

By LAURA JARRETT AND TAL KOPAN, CNN

(CNN) - The Trump administration is attempting to clarify the operational plan it intends to use to reunify migrant children separated from their parents at the southern border after a federal judge late Friday said the Department of Health and Human Services either "does not understand the court's orders or is acting in defiance of them."

In court papers Sunday, the Justice Department tried to provide "clarification of some points of potential confusion about how the reunification plan works" for the group of children aged 5-17. The plan makes clear that officials will not reunify a child without first making determinations confirming parentage and assessing the parents' fitness to receive children and the children's safety. HHS previously indicated that US District Court Judge Dana Sabraw's order had them do otherwise, resulting in a swift reprimand from the San Diego-based judge on Friday.

The crux of the dustup was a declaration from Christopher Meekins, the deputy assistant secretary for preparedness and response at HHS, who told the court Friday: "My opinion is that the court's necessary truncating of the vetting process for class membership -- including suspension of critical information-gathering through mandatory completion of family reunification packets -- materially increases the risk that HHS will reunify a child with a parent who will abuse them."

The judge hit back during a phone conference with attorneys on Friday, according to a court transcript of the call, saying Meekens' declaration was "nothing but cover for HHS. It is completely inconsistent with a good faith effort and the statement that three Cabinet members made (Thursday). It portrays a very grudging reluctance to do things. And then ultimately says, we are doing a truncated procedures, and if anything goes wrong it is on the court. That's the message, and it's not appreciated, and the government can do a lot better."

While Sunday's filing from the Justice Department emphasizes the "extraordinary resources" and "good faith" efforts the administration is undertaking to comply with Sabraw's reunification order, it still insists that there are going to be gaps in welfare as a result of Sabraw's streamlined reunification approach, and officials are "considering what additional modifications they need to make to the plan to comply with the court's new requirements."

The judge will convene another hearing Monday at 12:30 p.m. ET.

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