EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Gang-like activity, lice outbreaks and emotionally distraught children lacking basic mental health services. Those are the conditions former contract employees say they witnessed at a migrant children’s center in Fort Bliss.
The Department of Health and Human Services opened the Emergency Intake Site (EIS) in late March to temporarily house up to 5,000 unaccompanied migrant children ages 13-17 crossing the border from Mexico into Texas. Not two months later, advocates and a local congresswoman were expressing concerns to the news media about poor health, hygiene and a lack of oversight.
On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, several employees of a company contracted to provide services at the EIS spoke to KTSM and Border Report about “horrific” conditions they witnessed. The workers said they decided to talk to the news media after being notified by Servepro they had been laid off from their jobs.
“We had an incident in which one of the kids put his face to the table and lice fell out. Supervisors said they were aware the children should be isolated because there could be an outbreak. (But) they just threw them back in there and, all of a sudden, there was a lice outbreak,” said a youth services specialist who spoke on the condition she not be identified.
The woman said many children at the facility suffer anxiety and depression because they’re away from their families and nobody briefs them on the status of their case. Mostly from Central America, the children crossed the border alone with the intention of coming to live with relatives or sponsors in the United States.
“They want to talk about their cases (but) they don’t even know if they have case workers, if they’re ever going to go with their families,” the youth services specialist said. “They speak to family over the phone once a week, but the families don’t know anything, either. The kids want to talk to a counselor, but they only allow us to send four at a time. Kids are waiting two, three hours and sometimes they are never seen.”
She said the monotony of the food is another source of stress. Children are routinely fed rice, beans and chicken, with fish sticks thrown in occasionally. Some of the children are skipping meals in protest, she said.
A mid-level youth services supervisor who was also laid off this week told KTSM the anxiety and lack of shelter-sponsored activities is leading to physical assaults and fostering gang-like activity. He also worries that adults posing as children may be staying at the Fort Bliss EIS.
“They can be 22 or 23 because they don’t want to go to an adult unit, they want to go to a kids’ unit and get settled (in the U.S.),” the supervisor said, adding that the youths’ age is often difficult to establish because they cross into the United States without any identity documents.
The man said gang activity is also evident at the EIS.
“When I was there, there was a couple of initiations that they do. One of them was to kick a kid on the face while they’re sleeping or punch a kid while they’re sleeping to prove you’re willing to do something crazy,” the former supervisor said. “There are active MS-13, there are active 18th Street Gang members …”
The former employee, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, provided KTSM with photos of Honduras 13 and Sur 13 gang graffiti on EIS bathroom walls. He said graffiti of “502” and “504” was also present. Those are the area codes for Guatemala and Honduras
“You can tell from walking into the tents, you can see the groups. It’s obvious. When they go to the bathroom, they all go together, when they go to the showers, they all go together, when they go to eat, they go together,” he said.
The youth services specialist confirmed the gang-like activity at the EIS in a separate interview.
“If we didn’t watch the children, they would start fighting, like slapping each other, punching each other, pushing themselves off the beds. On Tuesday, one of the children pushed the other (child) off the bed and he fell and hurt himself on the forehead and he cut himself. It was a big, big cut and had to be transported to the hospital,” she said.
She said she saw graffiti of “502,” “504,” “MS-13,” “Sur 13” and others on the beds, the sheets, the shirts and even on the body of some of the children. The former workers attributed this activity to the stress the children are under and the limitations of mental health support services.
A third former contract worker at the facility said some of the children have staged “mini protests” over not being able to see their case worker. The children would line up against the wall and shout until their frustration subsided, said the woman, who described herself as an experienced health care provider.
The former employees also alleged they were working under harsh conditions.
“We weren’t given breaks. Sometimes we’d work seven days a week. We don’t have lunch. If we got up, we were threatened with being fired. It was 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, No days off,” she said. “There was no possibility of being able to eat with the kids because you had to watch them every single minute, so we would go 12 hours with no food at all and no bathroom breaks.”
A Servepro Industries LLC spokesperson on Wednesday issued a statement appearing to say the laid off contractors did not work for the company.
“One of our Servpro franchises worked with an independent labor provider to secure staffing for the referenced job [Fort Bliss EIS]. We understand that due to a decrease in occupants in the facility, there was no longer a need of the full number of laborers provided, resulting in the labor company reducing the number of laborers on site,” the statement said.
The workers on Tuesday night received a text message from their employer notifying them of a 60 percent reduction in force due to the EIS site capping capacity at 4,000 instead of expanding to 10,000, as previously reported.
Whoever really employs them, the former contract service workers say they have not received a last paycheck and report being owed between $1,500 to $1,750 apiece.
KTSM email a detailed set of questions to the Department of Health and Human Services requesting a response to the contract workers’ allegations. HHS responded with a fact sheet stating the Fort Bliss site has 3,316 children and a potential capacity of 10,000 beds.
HHS “is working diligently with its interagency partners to ensure that unaccompanied migrant children are unified with family members or other suitable sponsors in the U.S. as quickly and safely as possible,” the agency said.
U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar on May 22 told reporters the site was holding approximately 4,500 children back then.
On Friday, Escobar said she hasn’t seen any evidence of gang activity at the facility. “We get a lot of calls from folks who want to report things. I am very cautious about the information we get about giving credence to accusations without context,” she said.
Escobar said “there is no doubt” that children in Central America have been exposed to gangs and that is one of the reason families flee the region. But “we have not seen anything from the children themselves that has given me pause or concern. These are kids, they’re refugees and I think too often, unfortunately, there are folks who look at children and they want to see criminals,” she said.
Escobar said her staff is working with HHS and the Office of Refugee Resettlement to facilitate mental health services for migrant children and physical activities that help them cope with anxiety.
KTSM reporter Erin Coulehan contributed to this report.