Children inside the Biden administration's largest shelter for unaccompanied migrant youth were subjected to filthy living conditions and medical neglect under the watch of unqualified government contractors, two federal whistleblowers said in a complaint filed Wednesday.
Laurie Elkin and Justin Mulaire, two federal employees who were detailed to the Fort Bliss emergency intake shelter near El Paso, Texas, filed a whistleblower complaint to Congress alleging they witnessed intolerable noise, filth, and odors inside the large tents where children are housed; contractors who were unqualified to work with youths; and hostility, indifference, and resistance to providing medical treatment to sick kids.
The Government Accountability Project, which is representing the two whistleblowers, said that "the conditions they witnessed caused physical, mental and emotional harm affecting dozens of children."
Elkin and Mulaire say they were repeatedly ignored or discouraged by Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) superiors when they tried to report the substandard conditions and care children were living under.
The allegations track closely with reporting from Reason and other outlets from earlier this year describing unsanitary conditions and poor care for children housed in the shelter.
The shelter, inside the Fort Bliss Army base, is the largest in a network of emergency shelters the Biden administration set up earlier this year to move unaccompanied migrant children out of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detention centers. In theory, these shelters are a way station for kids who are waiting to be reunited with relatives or other connections in the United States. In fact, staffing problems and other issues left many kids stuck in limbo for up to a month or more.
The Fort Bliss shelter is staffed by a mix of contractors and federal employees detailed to HHS. At its peak, the shelter held roughly 4,500 young children and teenagers, mostly boys, in huge tents. As of late June, that number had dwindled to fewer than 800, NBC News reported.
In the complaint, Elkin recounts three instances where she discovered girls in distress, only to encounter resistance from contractors when she tried to get them medical care.
In one instance, Elkin says she came across a girl in a bottom bunk who was "ghostly pale."
"The girl told Ms. Elkin that she had not had her period for months but was now bleeding profusely and did not feel well. Clearly, the girl needed medical attention," the report says. "Ms. Elkin approached a contractor to request that the girl be taken to the medical tent. The contractor responded by saying she was not allowed to take girls to the doctor. Ms. Elkin then brought the case to contractor's supervisor who questioned why and if the girl needed to see a doctor."
The girls all eventually received care, but only at the insistence of Elkin, she alleges.
The contractor, Servpro Industries, mainly handles disaster recovery. The complaint says the contractors had little to no Spanish skills or experience in child welfare.
"Many contract workers seemed to view their job more as crowd control than youth care," the complaint says. "While some individuals plainly meant well, other contract workers exhibited impatience with children and were plainly unsure of how to supervise them."
Elkin and Mulaire also say contractors used loudspeakers to play music at intolerable volumes throughout the day, starting in the morning.
"In one notable case, in an apparent effort to wake the children up in the morning, contract staff routinely started playing painfully loud music at around 6 a.m. or 7 a.m.," the complaint says.
One contractor allegedly used a bullhorn to wake children up in the morning.
The conditions inside the tents were filthy, the duo says.
"Although many children were housed in these tents for as long as two months (or more), it appeared their bedding was never washed; many beds were visibly dirty," the whistleblower complaint alleges. "The children also reported having insufficient clean underwear and socks, which in turn made them reluctant to exercise," the whistleblowers say.
The complaint echoes many of the poor conditions that Reason reported in May. Federal employees detailed to the Fort Bliss shelter described chaos, underwear shortages, and medical neglect. In an audio recording of a training session for Fort Bliss detailees obtained by Reason, a trainer alluded to the poor conditions inside the tents, which at the time housed up to 1,000 people, each in stacked bunk-style cots.
"I've been into one dorm, one time, and I was like, yeah, I'm not going back there," the trainer says. "They're filthy. They're dirty. There's food on the floor. There's wet spots all over the place. The beds are dirty. I don't know what's going on or who's responsible for ensuring that the dorms need to be clean, but we all need to be responsible for telling the minors to clean up after themselves."
The trainer also said there had been inappropriate contact between staff and minors, as well as between minors.
Legal action followed the reports. In June, testimonials from migrant children describing deplorable conditions inside the shelter system were filed in an ongoing federal lawsuit.
Detained minors in their testimonials for the case described limited time outside, sporadic showers, and being served inadequate or unsafe food, including raw chicken and foul-smelling hamburgers. A 13-year-old Honduran recounted being "locked up all day" during five days in Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) custody. A 14-year-old Guatemalan girl said that detainees at a facility in Houston had to drink expired milk when they ran out of water. "I was never allowed to make a phone call while I was there," said a 17-year-old Honduran who was in CBP custody for 11 days. Minors reported receiving few details about how long they would be in custody and many were transferred to other facilities with little notice or explanation.
Those conditions have left detained minors despondent. "I used to be able to cope with my anxiety and breathe through it, but now I feel like I've given up," said a 17-year-old from Guatemala. "I feel like I'll never get out of here." One child was placed on suicide watch and another described how difficult it was to get an appointment with a counselor, though many girls in detention "have thoughts of cutting themselves." Teens have resorted to cutting themselves with their identification cards since employees at one facility banned pencils, pens, toothbrushes, and even the metal nose clips of N95 face masks over concerns of self-harm, according to testimony and worker accounts.
The total number of migrant minors being held by the U.S. government has waned, from more than 20,000 to roughly 14,500, according to the latest numbers from HHS.
HHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.