Migrant children housed in a tent camp inside a Texas Army base languished for weeks because of dysfunction and inadequate staff training, leading to distress and in some cases panic attacks, a report released Tuesday by the Health and Human Services Inspector General found.
The inspector general report further substantiates whistleblower allegations, first reported by Reason last May, of substandard conditions at a large tent camp for migrant youths set up by the Biden administration. Federal employees and audio recordings of staff meetings obtained by Reason described underwear shortages, filthy living spaces, and inappropriate contact between staff and minors.
The inspector general investigation found that the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) was overwhelmed by last year's surge in unaccompanied migrant youth, and in the rush to move children from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detention facilities to a temporary shelter inside the Fort Bliss Army base near El Paso, Texas, federal employees with little training were brought in as case workers.
"This created a situation where some children waited weeks between updates from their case managers, which staff at the facility reported as causing many children to experience distress, anxiety, and in some cases, panic attacks," the report says.
"Kids would say, 'I haven't talked to my case manager in 48 days,'" a youth worker assigned to the shelter told the inspector general's office. "They had a sense that they had been forgotten. Even if someone was working the case, it wasn't communicated to the kids in any systematic way. One girl kept saying she didn't know what was going on, and one day she broke down and said she couldn't take it anymore."
One staffer described witnessing a young girl begin to hit and cut herself.
The report also found that staffers failed to do thorough background checks before releasing children to sponsor homes. "In some cases, release recommendations made by these inexperienced case managers reportedly failed to consider children's significant history of abuse and neglect or whether sex offenders resided in the potential sponsor's household," the report said.
The Fort Bliss shelter was the largest in a network of emergency shelters the Biden administration set up last year to move unaccompanied migrant children out of CBP detention centers. In theory, these shelters were a way station for kids waiting to be reunited with relatives or other connections in the United States. But staffing problems and other issues left many kids stuck in limbo for up to a month or more.
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 housed up to 1,000 teenagers, 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."
Following Reason's reporting, four federal employees detailed to the Fort Bliss shelter filed whistleblower complaints claiming they witnessed intolerable noise, filth, and odors inside the large tents where children were housed; contractors who were wholly unqualified to work with youths; and hostility, indifference, and resistance to providing medical treatment to sick kids.
"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," one of the whistleblowers 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 inspector general also received reports that staff "faced potential retaliation after raising issues about case management and child safety, which caused hesitation among other staff who wished to share concerns."
All of the whistleblowers were represented by the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit watchdog group that aims to protect and represent whistleblowers.
"It is gratifying to see OIG's validation of our client's information," David Seide, the Government Accountability Project's co-counsel for the Fort Bliss whistleblowers, said in a press release. "However, this case is not closed. The issues here are likely to recur in other venues. It is incumbent upon HHS and the other federal immigration agencies to learn from this report and adhere to OIG's recommendations. Most importantly, the rights of whistleblowers must be safeguarded."