EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Minors ages 13 to 17 being woken up with a bullhorn siren. A volunteer being told she could not take to the doctor a girl bleeding profusely. Beddings going unchanged for weeks in cots where thousands of children slept.
When two volunteers tried to express their concerns over conditions they witnessed at the Department of Health and Human Services’ Emergency Intake Site at Fort Bliss, they say they were discouraged from filing reports.
The Government Accountability Project on Wednesday forwarded their testimonies to Congress, the Office of the Inspector General and the U.S. Office of the Special Counsel in hopes of spurring an inquiry into a facility that immigrant rights advocates in El Paso say should be shut down.
“The time our clients spent at Fort Bliss was alarming. Each day seemed to bring new examples of deficiencies in the care of the children and resulting risks to their health. Instances of gross mismanagement were pervasive,” said David Seide, senior counsel at the Government Accountability Project.
The volunteers, career federal civil servants Laurie Elkin and Justin Mulaire, said they were “actively discouraged” from reporting the problems but nonetheless filed complaints with the HHS Office of the Inspector General after EIS management allegedly ignored their concerns.
Border Report reached out to HHS for comment but did not immediately get a response. HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra visited the Fort Bliss EIS in June and touted “progress” made at the facility, including reducing the migrant children’s population from a peak of just under 5,000 to 790.
Becerra said HHS thoroughly investigates complaints. But the whistleblowers’ testimony points to a pattern of discouraging the filing of such complaints.
Elkin and Mulare believed the conditions at the EIS were placing undocumented children at risk so they “regularly and persistently” used whatever means were available to them to bring the situation to light, the Government Accountability Project said.
Witnesses to horror
The volunteers said they served at the Fort Bliss EIS in May and June. They were flown to Dallas for orientation but no one from the Office of Refugee Resettlement – the lead agency responsible for the children – spoke to them during training.
Elkin and Mulaire were told they could send emails to an electronic “suggestion box” should there be any problems but were also told not to use this tool during their first 10 days on the job. This equates to a gag order under the federal Whistleblower Protection Act, the Government Accountability Project said.
The volunteers complied with the directive through May 21, though they became aware of problems right away. This included no direct supervision from HHS or ORR inside the football field-sized tents with no privacy, bunk beds with bottom mattresses no more than 10 inches off the ground, dust and sand everywhere and the pervasive odor of sewage coming from port-a-potties next to the tents.
The whistleblowers said a large number of closely spaced bunk beds made line-of-sight supervision of migrant children impossible. This was a problem because a large number of migrant children were suffering from trauma, anxiety and depression. The volunteers learned some of the children were victims of sexual assaults and other crimes during their journey from Central America or watched others die along the way.
Another problem was the language barrier. Virtually all the migrant children spoke only Spanish and few volunteers spoke that language.
But the larger problems apparently stemmed from frustration on the part of contract employees at the facility or the directions they were given by supervisors, the volunteers said.
Loudspeakers were set at “intolerable levels” in the dormitories between 6 and 7 a.m., apparently to make the children get up. In one instance, a contractor dissatisfied with the children not getting up grabbed a bullhorn and began yelling at the children, the whistleblowers say. When that didn’t work, the contractor turned on the siren on the bullhorn and walked up and down an aisle blaring at the children, they allege.
Clean bedding and clothes were not regularly provided, and the children complained about not having clean socks or underwear. In the girls’ tent, the minors waited to shower until the day they were provided clean underwear, the volunteers said.
While some have laid the blame on ServoPro contract workers, Elkin and Mulaire said the contractors were given strict and “problematic” guidelines, such as not talk to the children unless the children approached them. That’s something that a child paralyzed by depression or anxiety wasn’t going to do.
The whistleblowers report that many contract workers came to view their job as “crowd control” more than youth care. “While some individuals plainly meant well, other contract workers exhibited impatience with children and were pliantly unsure how to supervise them,” they stated in the letter sent to Congress by the Government Accountability Project.
Elkin said she found migrant girls in distress and asked contractors to escort them to the medical and mental health services tent. Her requests were met with “indifference or even resistance.” One time she discovered a girl having a panic attack in her cot and was told by contractors to “take her outside and walk her around.”
In another instance, she found a girl looking pale and discovered she had severe vaginal bleeding. Both the contractor and a supervisor said they weren’t allowed to take the girls to the doctor, but Elkin insisted until they gave in.
The volunteers also testified to widespread miscommunication. One example was several girls being told they would be leaving the EIS to be reunited with family members, put on a bus and then being told to get off the bus because a mistake was made. Some were left in tears.
Mulaire and Elkin filed at least four complaints, to which HHS allegedly never responded.
Mulaire said he received a call from a contracting officer representative from HHS two days after leaving Fort Bliss. The rep wanted to talk about the loud music in the tents, but when Mulaire tried to bring up other issues, he was told he could not. The representative allegedly told Mulaire that reporting multiple problems “would be perceived as a ‘crying wolf’ situation.”
According to figures HHS released on Wednesday, as of Tuesday, 14,852 children were in the care of HHS, while 966 were in the care of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.