Government officials were aware of the harm family separation would cause and were critical of the practice years before the Trump administration established it as an official policy.

Advocates unearthed this and other details about the “zero tolerance” policy in response to a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests filed in April 2018.

The FOIA requests have uncovered documents that reveal a practice of family separations as early as 2016. These documents include government officials’ emails and incident reports.

The documents are significant because they show that internal efforts to raise red flags went ignored. They also reveal that oversight efforts did nothing to deter the administration’s widespread implementation of family separation in the spring and summer of 2018.

Emails show the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) officials’ knowledge of and frustration with the practice of family separation as early September 2016. In an email chain discussing the process for reunifying parents and children, one senior official stated, “[t]he best that could happen is… to stop the practice of family separation.”

Officials also attempted to document family separation in 2016 by submitting significant incident reports, historically used by the agency to document instances of child abuse, misconduct, or negligence. But these documents could not paint a full picture. Government employees generally had little information about the children in their care.

In one heartbreaking example, a report stated that a three-year-old was separated from her father on an unknown date and location. The child was unable to convey information as she did not speak English or Spanish.

Recent reporting by the Center for Public Integrity—supported in part by the FOIA documents requested by the American Immigration Council, National Immigrant Justice Center, Kids in Need of Defense, Women’s Refugee Commission, and Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project—examines what the administration knew before deciding to embrace zero tolerance.

The Center for Public Integrity pointed out that a Homeland Security advisory committee issued a report condemning family separation in 2016. This was around the same time HHS officials sent emails criticizing the program.

The report urged the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to find alternatives to family separation when, for example, a parent might be too ill to care for a child or the child might be hospitalized. The report did not envision how widespread family separation would become. But it criticized the act of separating a family, nonetheless.

Other documents demonstrate HHS officials’ urgency in dealing with separated families. This included attempts to reunify, repatriate, and maintain contact between separated family members in the chaos of zero tolerance.

Oversight offices have consistently determined that agencies were woefully unprepared to track and reunify families before, during, and after zero tolerance. The FOIA records drive this point home.

Agencies’ lack of technology and coordination meant they could not easily track and reunify families. But it is becoming increasingly clear that agencies did understand how harmful the policy would be to children and families.

Piecing together what agency and administration officials knew in the years leading up to zero tolerance continues to be a critically important part of the narrative. Much still needs to be revealed.