Last week the world learned that the United States has completely lost contact with the families of 545 of the 4,000 children who were cruelly separated from their parents at our southern border. As former Vice President Joe Biden said at the final debate, this "violates every notion of who we are as a nation."
Biden said Thursday that if he's elected, he will sign an executive order on his first day to establish a task force to address this catastrophe. We’ve already lost precious months, and he understands that every day that passes prolongs and exacerbates the trauma of these children.
Fortunately, the U.S. government has the capacity to reunite them and a model already exists for doing so.
The Department of Defense’s Prisoner of War and Missing in Action Accounting Agency (DPAA) has been collaborating with numerous countries, even adversaries like North Korea, to locate, identify and return the remains of U.S. service members missing overseas. They do this from a world-class facility with the latest investigative and forensic tools, access to documents and historical records, direct international collaboration and by launching well-staffed teams on expeditions to the most remote locations to find our fallen.
We should expect no less to find the living.
Furthermore, the Defense Department can make available all its resources to support the task force, from ground to fixed wing and rotary air assets, manpower, medical and communications support. Finding and reuniting these families will be an incredibly complex task that will require cooperation and resources from nearly every U.S. government agency and the task force should report directly to the White House.
Crimes and abuses will likely be uncovered; thus it is imperative that the Department of Justice and other watchdog agencies provide liaisons to the task force. Furthermore, a special court, with federal judges specializing in immigration, custody, and international laws and with a dedicated support staff, should assist the mission.
The Department of Health and Human Service (HHS) should be the lead department inside the United States and be responsible for the welfare of the children until they are reunited. Not only does HHS, especially the Office of Refugee Resettlement, have the experience to do this, they have case officers who understand the documents needed for reunification.
HHS will require direct support from the Department of Homeland Security to allow access to detained children for debriefing. Of course, the various DHS agencies responsible for executing this disaster should be required to make all of their resources available and the Department of the Treasury should be on the team, as well, to oversee a process of providing financial restitution to these families.
Partner agencies, state and local governments and non-governmental organizations must also be welcomed into this mission, including the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the International and American Red Cross, the ACLU, Justice In Motion, Amnesty International and various immigration and children’s rights advocacy organizations.
Interpreters, researchers, social workers, and mental health professionals will be needed, perhaps for years to come. This must be a whole of government effort that spares no expense. Any parent who has even momentarily lost a child in a store knows the horror and physical pain of separation—we must now help families and children heal from the damage caused by months and even years of being kept apart.
We will never erase the trauma that was inflicted in our name on these children and their families, nor will we fully expunge ourselves of this shameful stain on our national conscience, but we can fully commit to correcting this wrong. This is about the "soul of our nation," and we owe these families nothing less.
Jason is a retired U.S. Army colonel who served in the Pentagon and commanded soldiers in Europe, the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is on the board of directors of Iraqi Children Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping Iraqi children traumatized by decades of conflict.