Hundreds of migrant children, still being held in a Health and Human Services detention facility months after crossing the United States-Mexico border, are being inadequately cared for by an HHS contractor that specializes in cleaning up after fires and floods, not monitoring children, according to two whistleblowers.
As The Daily Wire reported Wednesday, the Biden administration is still holding on to around 14,000 child migrants, down from a high of 22,500, but still, reportedly, many more than the Biden administration can adequately care for. HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra sent a letter to Congress earlier this week defending the agency’s decision to shift nearly a billion dollars in COVID-19 relief funds to help defray the cost of holding child migrants in temporary detention facilities — and it was the second such request the Biden administration has made.
Although the Biden administration celebrated a “massive drop” in the number of children in CBP custody in May, many of those kids were simply transferred from CBP to HHS where they were placed in separate detention facilities beyond the reach of immigration courts, which placed limits on how long children and families can remain in immigration authorities’ custody, as The Daily Wire noted.
One of those facilities, on the campus of Texas’s Ft. Bliss, is set up to house nearly 10,000 migrant children but is currently home to several hundred — and those several hundred are struggling with what whistleblowers have labeled “inadequate” conditions and substandard care.
“Children housed in one of the Biden administration’s largest shelters for unaccompanied migrant minors were being watched over by contractors with no Spanish-language skills or experience in child care who usually stood idly at the edge of crowded tents, according to two federal workers who have come forward to file a whistleblower complaint to Congress,” NBC News reported.
“The contractor for the Department of Health and Human Services, Servpro, specializes in cleanup after water, fire, and storm disasters. It shows no record of having handled a contract related to child welfare before it took on the care of nearly 5,000 children who were housed at the facility at Fort Bliss, Texas, in May,” the outlet continued, noting that it appears a Servpro franchise entered into the contract with HHS.
The two whistleblowers — federal employees who answered the Biden administration’s call to assist at the border when the administration admitted it was overwhelmed back in May — claimed that the contractors wore uniforms with Servpro’s motto, “Like it never even happened.”
“Contractor staff told Ms. [Laurie] Elkin and Mr. [Justin] Mulaire that they had received no training prior to beginning work and had little guidance about what their role was,” the complaint alleged. “[T]he conditions they witnessed caused physical, mental and emotional harm affecting dozens of children.”
The whistleblowers also claimed that the HHS contractors “did not initiate interaction with the children and generally simply stood quietly, passively watching the children,” that they viewed their job as “more as crowd control than youth care,” that they woke up the children with bullhorns and loud music, and that they paid little attention to kids in distress “unless a child specifically approached them.”
Elkin, who worked with the young girls living at Ft. Bliss reported a shocking lack of attention to medical needs.
Elkin said that she found three girls in bottom bunks who needed urgent medical or mental health care but that she was met with resistance when she tried to get them help. One girl was sleeping continuously and, when approached, told Elkin that she had a sore throat. According to Elkin, a contractor said the medical staff would not be able to do anything for her, but Elkin took the girl anyway.
Elkin said that another had a panic attack after learning her sister was in a coma and that Elkin was told to walk the girl around outside to calm her down. Elkin said that in the third case, she discovered a girl in a bottom bunk who was ghostly pale and revealed that she was having profuse vaginal bleeding. Elkin said that her supervisor questioned her decision to take the girl to see a doctor but that Elkin insisted and the girl was ultimately given medical treatment.
The pair also said that the children were never given clean bedding and rarely given clean clothes, despite the arid conditions, in the two months the pair worked at Ft. Bliss.
Whistleblowers who spoke, separately, to CBS News, seemed to substantiate reports of deplorable conditions, and in a federal court declaration, children housed at Ft. Bliss reported that they were suffering through “despair” and “isolation” and that some of the child migrants had taken to harming themselves, cutting their arms and wrists. Dozens were placed on a “suicide watch list,” according to one migrant’s testimony.
Some children held at the large tent complex at the Fort Bliss U.S. Army base have required one-on-one supervision 24 hours a day to ensure they don’t hurt themselves. Others have refused to eat or spend most of their days sleeping on cots. Workers said they saw migrant girls and boys with cut marks on their wrists and arms.
Federal officials became so concerned about migrant teens harming themselves that they banned pencils, pens, scissors, nail clippers and regular toothbrushes inside tents housing hundreds of children, according to an internal document. Workers at the site said they were even instructed to remove the metal nose clips from N95 face masks.
Several children have reportedly tried to escape the site.
“According to data shared with CBS News,” the outlet noted, “more than 100 children had been housed at Fort Bliss for 60 days or longer as of earlier this month. Sixteen boys had been at the site since it opened on March 30, 2021.”
Last week, HHS Secretary Becerra said that conditions at Ft. Bliss were improving and that “his agency had trained more caseworkers and was now discharging children to relatives more quickly,” according to The New York Times. Becerra, however, stopped short of taking responsibility for the system’s failures, instead urging Congress to take up immigration reform.
“We understand that we have a job to do and a legal obligation to make sure they are safe and healthy,” Becerra said. “We need to fix this broken immigration system. We need to be prepared to handle circumstances like this, and we need to do it in the best way possible.”