Migrant Children at Fort Bliss Shelter Faced Distress, Long Release Waits

This article features Government Accountability Project and was originally published here.

Hundreds of unaccompanied migrant children at an emergency intake shelter at Fort Bliss either faced unnecessary delays in being reunited with their families or were released to family or sponsors who had not had adequate background checks, an internal federal report shows.

Arriving at the Southwest border without parents or legal guardians in early 2021, the children also went weeks without talking to their case managers – leading to their emotional distress, anxiety, panic attacks and even self-harm, according to a 58-page report from the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General released on Sept. 27.

“The reliance of HHS on emergency intake sites and influx care facilities like Fort Bliss fails to serve the best interests of children seeking safety,” said Wendy Young, president of Kids In Need of Defense, a contracted agency providing legal assistance and education to children detained at the site. “KIND continues to press the department to expand the network of smaller shelters where the standard of care is higher.”

The emergency intake shelter at Fort Bliss opened on March 30, 2021 – one of 14 ordered by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The ORR oversees the unaccompanied children program under the HHS’s Administration for Children and Families. Shelters were also set up in San Diego and Los Angeles, California, and Dallas, San Antonio, Houston and Pecos in Texas, among others.

With a capacity of up to 10,000 children, the Fort Bliss facility was quickly condemned as unacceptable by elected officials and migrant and children advocacy groups who toured the site shortly after it was erected. Whistleblowers later alleged “gross mismanagement” and poor conditions at the site. The Associated Press reported a high of 4,800 children were housed there in May 2021, dropping to under 1,000 in June of that year.

The HHS’s Office of the Inspector General reviewed the shelter for the period of March 30 to June 30, 2021, after members of Congress, child welfare advocates, and staff at the facilities raised concerns about inadequate case management. The inspector general also conducted an on-site inspection June 29-30 of that year.

The facility – warehouse-sized soft-sided tents crammed with rows of cot-like bunk beds for 13 to 17 year olds – is run by an emergency shelter services provider under a federal contract, though one is not named in the report.

The El Paso Times in a September 2021 story identified the contractor as Rapid Deployment Inc., an Alabama-based company that has billions of dollars in federal contracts. The Fort Bliss shelter contract was extended and modified numerous times, skyrocketing to more than $1.5 billion by December 2021, according to the Federal Procurement Data System and USASpending.gov, which track government spending and contracts.

The ORR closed 12 of the 14 emergency intake shelters in January this year, converting the Fort Bliss and Pecos sites to influx care facilities in May and June, respectively. Both influx care and emergency intake facilities are meant to be temporary, with the latter only providing basic services such as food and clothing. Neither is required to be licensed by state child welfare agencies.

Today, the Rapid Deployment contract is valued at about $3.36 billion – with a more than $310 million nine-month contract extension to June 2023 awarded on Sept. 30, government spending data show. The Fort Bliss influx facility now has beds for 1,500 children and housed about 850 on Sept. 30.

Officials with Rapid Deployment Inc. didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Officials with the HHS Office of the Inspector General told El Paso Matters that the review focused on the safe and timely release of the migrant children and didn’t specifically look at the condition of the shelter. The Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower and advocacy organization, and media outlets that spoke to staff at the shelter last year said they described the facility as filthy, overly loud and prone to flooding and dust storms.

OIG officials said allegations of abuse at the shelter were referred to the Office of Investigations for consideration “understanding that local law enforcement and child protective services are often the most appropriate response agency.” OIG said it couldn’t confirm nor deny ongoing cases.

The OIG said it is also conducting an audit to determine whether the Administration for Children and Families followed federal regulations, as well as Health and Human Services procedures, in awarding contracts for emergency intake shelters. That report is expected to be issued sometime in fiscal year 2023, which started on Oct. 1.

Shelters overflow as influx soars

The unaccompanied children program saw referrals of the young migrants by the Department of Homeland Security double to nearly 123,000 from fiscal year 2019 to 2021 – with more than 20,000 children in April 2021 alone. At the same time, capacity in a network of licensed shelters decreased as COVID-19 led to staffing shortages and social distancing protocols.

Children in custody of DHS agencies such as Border Patrol must be transferred to the ORR within 72 hours from determining they’re unaccompanied. Those children remain under ORR custody until a family member or sponsor assumes custody, they are placed in long-term foster care, or age out at 18.

Here’s some of what the inspector general’s review found:

  • Inexperienced case managers: ORR’s rush to open the shelter led to those running the facility – federal employees temporarily assigned there and unnamed federal contractors – to hire inexperienced case managers without providing adequate and timely training. About 300 case managers were hired within a month.
  • Weeks without updates: One staffer said they knew of a list of about 700 children who had not been seen by a case manager for about 60 days. “In one extreme case of a child in distress, a youth care worker described witnessing a young girl begin to hit and cut herself in front of a group of children after learning that her mother had not yet been contacted by a case manager,” the report states. The girl was transferred to a psychiatric facility.
  • Lag in communication: Shelter staff attributed the lag in communication to staffing shortages, high turnover rates and the high number of children onsite. Some case managers handled 30 to 35 children when the shelter first opened. That shrunk to about five cases as the number of children there decreased. The ORR issued additional guidance in May 2021 requiring case managers to update the children on their status every 10 to 12 days. By late June, case managers at the Fort Bliss shelter were meeting with children under their care every seven days.
  • Sponsor screening reduced: ORR issued temporary waivers in background check requirements for families and sponsors to whom children were being released – potentially increasing children’s risk of being released to unsafe sponsors. “Although ORR must ensure that children do not experience unnecessary delays in release, it must also ensure that children are safely released to thoroughly vetted sponsors,” the report states.
  • The inspector general is conducting an evaluation on the sponsor screening process during the influx and policies that were supposed to have been put in place since at both the emergency intake and influx centers, officials told El Paso Matters. The report won’t likely be out until next year.
  • The portal: ORR’s case management system – the UC Portal – often froze, locked users out without saving the input information, or crashed for extended periods of time. The portal also couldn’t accurately  identify when a sponsor had previously sponsored or attempted to sponsor a child. “This step is necessary to help ensure that children do not fall victim to trafficking and other forms of exploitation,” the report states.
  • Whistleblower retaliation: The report notes possible instances of retaliation against whistleblowers who sought to bring attention to the problems. Incidents of staff being fired, demoted or reassigned were reported.

Recommendations, solutions

The OIG made a number of recommendations to the Administration for Children and Families, including that it develop a plan to secure qualified case managers during an influx. In response, the ACF said the ORR’s contractor in July 2022 had recruited more than 400 experienced case managers who can be deployed as needed.

Training improvements were also recommended, which the ORR said it is addressing with lessons learned from the shortfalls at Fort Bliss. ORR last fall awarded a 5-year contract to update its training infrastructure.

The ORR and ACF also agreed to seek input from staff with expertise in child welfare when establishing protocols and field guidance during an influx, to continue improving the case management system and to better inform ORR employees and contractors about federal whistleblower protections.

“As advocates who regularly meet with children in government custody, we welcome this kind of transparency and agree with the inspector general’s recommendations,” Young, of the KIND agency, said in a statement. “It is now vital that HHS ensure that Fort Bliss meets all relevant requirements for influx care facilities to optimize conditions and services for the vulnerable children placed there.”