(WASHINGTON) -- The Department of Health and Human Services defended its decision to implement a less-stringent vetting process in order to more quickly reunite the thousands of children and parents separated by the Trump administration's "zero-tolerance" policy.
The government is facing a July 26 deadline to reunite 2,551 kids aged 5 to 17, as identified by HHS, with their parents after being separated at the border, per an order last month by Judge Dana Sabraw of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.
The government said in a hearing Friday they weren't sure they would be able to meet the July 26 deadline and that they were undertaking a sped-up vetting process to comply with the ruling.
Sabraw called truncated vetting standards "a failure of the process and it is inconsistent with the court’s order" in a conference call following a Friday status hearing according to The Washington Post.
HHS spokesperson Evelyn Stauffer defended the government's decision to speed up reunifying families by not fully vetting parents.
"The department has been operating in good faith and earnestly trying to comply with court orders, including the rapidly approaching deadline for reunification," Stauffer said in a statement. "Our interpretation of the court’s order is that HHS must make a determination of parentage, fitness, and safety before reunifying families, but that HHS need not undertake the fuller process of vetting for children’s safety that HHS would ordinarily conduct in its operations.
"In the interests of transparency and cooperation, the department felt it necessary in our filings on Friday to share with the court our view that meeting the deadline would mean truncating the process we might have otherwise followed.
"Within the time the court allows, we will strive to implement the most comprehensive procedures possible to ensure child welfare," Stauffer continued. "We look forward to continuing our close work with the court to accomplish the goals we share of safe, expeditious reunification."
The government already missed a deadline from the same case, which required children under 5 to be reunited by July 10. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which filed the original class-action lawsuit that led to Sabraw's ruling, said Thursday night that 58 of the 103 separated children under 5 years old have been reunited with parents. The government said 33 parents were ineligible because they were in criminal custody and another 12 parents had already been deported.
Sabraw had actually praised HHS for its "good faith" effort to comply with reuniting children under 5, though they missed the initial deadline by days. The praise came before his comments on the shorter vetting process in an unscheduled call Friday evening.
The next status conference is scheduled for Monday.
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