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Concerns raised about 'traumatized' immigrant children still in custody

(CNN) Advocates for immigrant families that were separated by the US government said Thursday they're concerned about a group of children who've remained in custody for months even though their parents had designated sponsors to take them in.

In a filing in a California federal court Thursday evening, attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union said there are up to 59 children in this situation. In these cases, parents who'd been deported without their kids told officials they didn't want their children to be repatriated and designated sponsors to care for them in the United States.

"We are concerned that such a large number of children, who were, of course, already traumatized by the separation from their parents, are still awaiting placement more than two months after their parents identified a preferred sponsor," the court filing says.

This is the first time this concern has been raised in this case, but it's an issue that's becoming widespread as a record number of unaccompanied minors are in government custody.

Officials have said stringent vetting policies put in place to protect children contribute to the high number. Lawsuits have accused the administration of unnecessarily extending children's stays.

Thursday's court filing was the latest development in the ACLU's case over immigrant family separations. In June, US District Judge Dana Sabraw ordered the government to reunite most of the families it had divided, comprising parents and children who had been separated as a result of the government's now-reversed "zero tolerance" policy at the border and some separations that had occurred before that policy was put in place.

The reunification process has stretched for months and faced a number of hurdles as members of an ACLU-led steering committee struggled to track down parents who'd been deported without their children.

Thursday's filing, a joint report filed by government and ACLU attorneys, also provided updated statistics on the family reunification effort:

Who's in custody now

• 140 children who were separated from their parents remain in custody.

• Eight of them are in the pipeline to reunite with their parents or "other appropriate discharge" -- six with parents outside the US and two with parents in the US.

• 30 cannot be reunified because the parents are unfit or pose a danger to their children.

• 90 have parents who were deported and elected not to reunify.

• 12 have parents in the US who elected not to reunify.

• That means of the children separated from parents who remain in custody, more than nine-in-10 of them will not be reunified with their parents, either because the parents have declined reunification or officials have deemed it cannot occur because the parents are unfit or pose a danger.

Data on months of reunifications

• Since the judge's ruling, 1,959 children from separated families have been reunified with parents in the United States.

• 166 children were reunified with parents after being repatriated to their countries of origin.

• 59 children could not be reunified because their parents were deemed unfit or a danger.

• 268 children's parents waived reunification -- 221 children with parents outside the US, and 47 with parents inside the US.

Lingering issues

Thursday's court filing outlines a number of issues that have yet to be resolved in the high-profile case, including:

What happens in the cases of nonparents who were separated from children? Legal guardians who were separated from children they care for have been arguing they also should be reunited with the children as part of this case.

What happens in the cases of children from separated families who were released from government custody before June 26? Government attorneys argue the judge's ruling and a settlement over asylum claims shouldn't apply to the cases of children who were released from US custody before June 26 -- the day Sabraw ruled in the case. Advocates argue rulings in the case should apply to these children as well. Attorneys don't go into details about how many people might be in this situation, but the implication is that there may be more families not included in the government's tally that the ACLU believes should be reunified.

Can the court require the government to create a better computer system to track separated families? This is a question the judge asked in a status hearing earlier this month, in light of reports about how poor record-keeping seriously hindered efforts by officials to reunite families they'd separated. ACLU attorneys said Thursday that they wanted more information about existing practices of separating families and any recent policies relating to family reunification. Government attorneys said an Office of Refugee Resettlement database now includes a check box that indicates whether a child has been separated from their family, and other government agencies have access to that system to enter related case information.

These matters are likely to come up in court on Friday, when the next status hearing is scheduled in the case.