Two more federal whistleblowers came forward today saying they witnessed filthy conditions, mismanagement, and efforts to downplay the spread of COVID-19, lice, and other health issues at the country's largest tent shelter for unaccompanied migrant youths.
In a whistleblower complaint filed to Congress, Arthur Pearlstein and Lauren Reinhold, two federal employees who were detailed to the Fort Bliss emergency intake shelter between April and June, allege that organization chaos, indifference, and reliance on untrained contractors led to children being denied basic necessities like underwear and mental health counseling.
The shelter, a series of huge tents within the Fort Bliss Army base near El Paso, Texas, 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 U.S. In fact, staffing problems and other issues left many kids stuck in limbo for up to a month or more.
Two other federal employees filed a whistleblower complaint earlier this month claiming they witnessed intolerable noise, filth, and odors inside the large tents where children are housed; contractors who were wholly unqualified to work with youths; and hostility, indifference, and resistance to providing medical treatment to sick kids.
All of the whistleblowers are represented by the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit watchdog group that aims to protect and represent whistleblowers.
"I am speaking out in the interest of accountability and with the hope that the many avoidable failures in the program at Fort Bliss will not be repeated," Pearlstein said in a statement. "Gross mismanagement, waste, and abuse of authority by those at the top who insisted on utmost secrecy led to conditions for thousands of children at Fort Bliss that can only be described as constituting mistreatment."
The complaints further substantiate reporting by Reason from May, in which federal employees and audio recordings of staff meetings described underwear shortages, filthy living conditions, and inappropriate contact between staff and minors.
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."
Of the underwear shortage, the trainer said: "Now when it comes to clothing, I do want to let you guys know we are aware there is a shortage of underwear, socks, and shoes, and management knows. We're working on getting more for minors."
Despite the promises, Pearlstein and Reinhold's complaint says that the underwear shortage "persisted for weeks and months."
"Countless children reported these shortages to detailees," the complaint says. "Boys said they had no underwear at all, while most simply had only one pair with nothing to change into."
In the audio of the staff meeting obtained by Reason, the trainer also alluded to inappropriate contact between staff and minors. Pearlstein and Reinhold's complaint notes at least one instance of sexual harassment. The complaint says that in one instance, construction workers "lewdly and loudly gawked at girls as they walked outside to the meal tent." The detailees attempted to report the incident, but the complaint says "managers resisted taking their complaints."
The previous complaints and audio recordings also described several instances of medical neglect, such as contractors refusing to take obviously sick children to get medical care.
Pearlstein and Reinhold's complaint says Pearlstein witnessed one instance where "a clinician's primary response to a boy–who had complained of feeling very depressed and sad–was to tell him that he had nothing to complain about and that, in fact, he should feel grateful for all he was being given."
The Fort Bliss shelter is staffed by a mix of contractors and federal employees detailed to the Department of Health and Human Services. 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.
As of Tuesday, there were 13,752 minors in the shelter system, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
According to the complaint, the three major contractors involved in the operations at the Fort Bliss Shelter are Rapid Deployment Inc., Servpro, and Chenega, the latter of which was previously identified by Reason. None of them appear to have any experience in childcare.
According to the Government Accountability Project, the U.S. government contract for services at the Fort Bliss shelter will end up costing roughly $1 billion.