Typically, when a child is reported missing, the community turns out in droves to help find them. Search parties, tracker dogs and helicopters set off to find the often scared and alone youngling.
For some of the children missing who were relocated to Culpeper from the Southern Border, the goal to reunite them with their sponsors seemingly is doomed from the start.
During a tour of the Culpeper Police Department on April 14, Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger heard from officers who feel like their hands are tied when it comes to finding the 10 children who were relocated to the community.
The United States Department of Health and Human Services’s Office of Refugee Resettlement transfers custody of unaccompanied minors crossing into the United States to sponsors located around the country. Kids are often placed with sponsors who have some connection to their family or home country community.
In 2020, DHS referred 15,381 unaccompanied minors to ORR. In 2021, 122,731 were referred.
In 2017, HHS processed 40,810 unaccompanied minors. Former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Steven Wagner testified in May 2018 to a Senate subcommittee that of the 7,635 children placed with sponsors between October and December 2017, 6,075 stayed, 52 had moved, 28 had run away and five were deported. The remaining 1,475 children were unaccounted for.
In their process in accounting for children, ORR performs a voluntary phone call 30 days after a minor is placed with a sponsor, however, the sponsor can choose whether or not to pick up the phone.
“All of them pretty much within 30 days are leaving the sponsors’ home and they just disappear,” said Culpeper Police Department Sergeant Norma McGuckin. “We have no idea where they are.”
The sponsors have communications with the children’s biological parents who say their children are safe but not disclosing their locations to law enforcement, she continued. The parents explain the children are still in the United States and are working to send money back to their home countries.
“You’re left in this circumstance where these children are unaccounted for,” Spanberger said. “They might be being abused. They might be in bad situations.”
Major Chris Settle, who explained the department isn’t even notified when the juveniles are resettled in Culpeper, said files containing integral information to locate the minors such as DNA and fingerprints are being withheld by ORR.
“Whenever I call them and ask, ‘Can you share demographics of the children (in order to help find them),’ they say they can’t give me that because they are under the federal government,” McGuckin said.
In order to get demographic information and other identifying information such as fingerprints, she continued, she must contact U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), who supplies her with information from when the child first arrived at the border.
“So you’re supposed to find the child but you have no ability or information to find the child?” Spanberger asked.
“Correct,” McGuckin said.
Consequently, they've been unable to find any of the missing children, McGuckin said.
Fredy Gustavo, 13, was last seen on Feb. 7 at his aunt’s resident in Culpeper. He was last seen wearing a black/green sweatshirt with the Monster energy drink emblem on the front, black Puma jogger pants with stripes on the sides and green tennis shoes. It is believed that he may have been picked up by Juan Caal Ical in a gray 4-door sedan-style vehicle. Their destination is unknown.
Gustavo arrived in Culpeper three years ago and attended county schools before he presumably ran away. When his sponsor, his maternal aunt, discovered he was missing, she called police as is suggested by ORR.
When the sisters spoke after he had been reported missing, McGuckin said, Gustavo’s mother became angry as she explained he was not missing but had left to begin working. Gustavo is rumored to be in Tennessee, McGuckin said.
According to HHS, in 2021, approximately 72% of children referred were over 14-years-old, and 66% were boys. The countries of origin were primarily Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
Like Gustavo, most of Culpeper’s missing children are from Guatemala.
Following the tour, Spanberger said she will be following up on how to help the department and others around the 7th District facing resettlement issues.
“If it’s a problem here in Culpeper, obviously, it’s a problem everywhere,” she said. “I’m really appreciative of the department bringing it to our attention.”