(Adds comments by HHS official)
By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON, Jan 28 (Reuters) - U.S. authorities failed to conduct proper background checks before releasing undocumented migrant children to guardians, who in some cases exploited them, a bipartisan U.S. Senate investigation found.
Republican Senator Rob Portman opened a Thursday hearing on the findings saying the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) lacked proper procedures to protect undocumented children entering the United States without an accompanying adult.
The Senate investigation was prompted by a case in Portman's home state of Ohio in which at least six children from Guatemala were forced to work long hours on egg farms in Marion County. Six people have been charged in the case, Portman said.
That could have been prevented had HHS adopted commonsense measures for screening sponsors and checking on the well-being of at-risk children, Portman said.
HHS Acting Assistant Secretary Mark Greenberg said in prepared testimony the agency has instituted new procedures aimed at preventing abuse of minors once they are released by the government.
He noted the number of immigrant children temporarily cared for by HHS has skyrocketed, from an average of around 6,000 a year to 57,496 in fiscal 2014 and 33,726 in fiscal 2015, which ended last Sept. 30.
The Senate investigation cited additional cases of children exposed to abuse following release, which are under investigation by the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, said Portman, the panel chairman.
"It is intolerable that human trafficking - modern-day slavery - could occur in our own backyard," Portman said. "But what makes the Marion cases even more alarming is that a U.S. government agency was responsible for delivering some of the victims into the hands of their abusers."
Democratic President Barack Obama's administration was criticized by Republicans in 2014 after a surge of undocumented minors slipped across the southern border, in a humanitarian crisis that caused a logistical nightmare for American officials struggling to cope with the influx.
The administration also was under pressure from immigrant groups and legal requirements to promptly process the unaccompanied minors so they could move from government custody to family members living in the United States.
Despite the U.S. government's subsequent efforts to discourage the migration, a wave of undocumented families and unaccompanied children from Central America rose significantly late last year, according to U.S. figures.
HHS has placed about 90,000 migrant children, most of them for Central America, with adult sponsors in the United States, Portman said.
(Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington; Editing by Frances Kerry and Matthew Lewis)
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