This week the U.S. Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) released a report on the work of the Young Center for Immigrant Children Rights at the University of Chicago. The Young Center, based at the University of Chicago law school, is the only organization in the country appointed as Child Advocate (guardian ad litem) in immigration matters involving child trafficking victims and other vulnerable unaccompanied children. In evaluating the Young Center’s work, the GAO performed a yearlong audit in which it interviewed attorneys, immigration judges, detention facility staff, and representatives from the Office of Refugee Resettlement (“ORR”), which oversees the Child Advocate program. The GAO reviewed years of Young Center data regarding its services and found that over 70% of the Young Center’s recommendations were adopted by the entity receiving them.

One of the primary conclusions of the resulting report is that the Department of Health & Human Services should continue to support the expansion of the Child Advocate program to ensure that the provision of Child Advocate services keeps pace with the number of unaccompanied children that needthem.

The stakeholders interviewed by GAO agreed that the Young Center’s recommendations, which promote the best interests of hundreds of children in detention and post-release, are valuable assets that help the stakeholders determine how best to support the children:

The primary benefit of the child advocate program is its best interest recommendations, according to ORR field staff, immigration judges, and children’s attorneys we interviewed. The Young Center develops these recommendations to help ensure a child’s safety and well-being at different points in their case. Over 70% of the Young Center’s recommendations were adopted by the entity receiving them.

 Best interest recommendations vary depending on each child’s circumstances, but generally are to incorporate information on the child’s history, background, home country conditions, and the rationale for the recommendations.  For example, recommendations could request that a child receive services while in ORR custody, express an opinion on the appropriateness of release to a sponsor, or provide information about whether a child can be safely returned to their home country.  For example, the Young Center was appointed as an advocate for a 2-year-old child. When the Young Center was appointed as advocate, no one had been able to locate the child’s biological mother. The Young Center gathered information, located the child’s mother, and learned the mother’s wishes for her child.

According to our interviews with stakeholders, these recommendations give children—especially those who are unable to make an independent decision due to young age or trauma—a voice during the immigration process.

The full report is available at http://www.gao.gov/assets/680/676687.pdf