When federal immigration authorities catch unaccompanied minors entering the country illegally, the authorities are required to follow certain steps based on the idea that the children should be well cared for while the government figures out what to do with them. But a recent Senate report suggests that the government has failed some of these children in troubling ways.

Under federal law, when immigration officials detain an unaccompanied minor, they must transfer the child to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, which then tries to place him or her with a sponsor while the immigration case proceeds. More than half eventually go to live with a parent, and most of the rest go to a member of the extended family. But some are released to a distant relative or a family friend whom a parent has vouched for, and that is where the breakdown occurs, according to a report by a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee.

In one egregious case, six people were indicted on a charge of allegedly forcing workers who were in the country illegally — eight of them minors — to work 12-hour shifts six or seven days a week at chicken farms and then turn over their paychecks. The children were told that if they refused or tried to escape, their parents would be attacked, and possibly killed. Most appalling: The government handed over the minors after the traffickers fraudulently claimed to be distant relatives or family friends.

How widespread is the problem ? It’s impossible to say, because HHS doesn’t track what happens once a minor is placed with a sponsor, a function of the agency’s narrow authority in these cases. The Senate report counts 34 more cases in which children may have been handed over to traffickers or abusers as a result of insufficient vetting by federal officials, a lack of follow-up visits and no system for determining whether a sponsor has offered to take in multiple minors, a possible sign of trafficking.

Separately, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, recently reported an unidentified whistle-blower’s claim that at least 3,400 sponsors out of a sample of 29,000 had criminal histories that should have rendered them ineligible.

To its credit, HHS has already expanded background checks to include all adults in a sponsor’s house, established a hot line for minors who need help, and required case workers to check on each child 30 days after placement. But the agency needs to do more, and Congress also should tighten up the vetting requirements and direct HHS to track the children once they are placed with the sponsors. It’s unconscionable that the government officials add, even if unwittingly, to the exploitation of children.

FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE LOS ANGELES TIMES