Whistleblower outlines mismanagement, abuse at Texas shelters for migrant kids
This article features Government Accountability Project’s anonymous whistleblower client and was originally published here.
A federal employee is accusing the Department of Health and Human Services of a pattern of “wrongdoing, abuses and mismanagement” at federal emergency facilities that processed and cared for migrant kids.
The whistleblower, whose identity has remained anonymous, volunteered as a career civil servant to temporarily work at emergency shelters and was dispatched to sites between April and May 2021 after an influx of migrant children began arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.
On Wednesday, the employee’s official account of mismanagement was sent to members of Congress, government lawyers and the Office of Inspector General through the Government Accountability Project, a group that provides legal services to whistleblowers.
In the whistleblower disclosure, the federal employee said when they worked at the Fort Bliss emergency intake site, which housed thousands of migrant children and teens, the vast majority of mental health staffers had “no mental health training, credentials or experience,” including the team leader.
The whistleblower also obtained emails outlining dozens of problems from May 1-6 at Fort Bliss that were not immediately solved. Complaints included incidents like staff threatening to deport children, leaving lights on in tents for 24 hours a day, not providing children with underwear, only offering scalding water to children and rejecting requests for mental and physical health care.
Through the Government Accountability Project, four other whistleblowers have previously come forward with official complaints about poor conditions at Fort Bliss, where thousands of children have been held in tents.
“This new evidence is shocking. It further reveals violations of fundamental human rights,” Government Accountability Project senior counsel David Seide said in a written statement. “It is no defense to assert that the reports of these conditions are now ‘old’ and have been ‘fixed.’ Problems in implementation and execution are not new, were to be expected, were prohibited by existing laws and regulations and should have never happened in the first place.”
The federal employee’s account of systematic failure was not limited to the Fort Bliss assignment.
At an initial training, the whistleblower said orientation for incoming staff was done hastily and failed to provide comprehensive guidance regarding child sexual abuse. Role assignment was also chaotic and new staff communicated using personal cell phones and messaging apps, according to the whistleblower’s disclosure.
The federal staffer said they worked briefly at an emergency shelter in Houston, a large warehouse run by the National Association of Christian Churches, which housed between 400 and 500 migrant girls.
The whistleblower account mentions little privacy for kids and that cots were spaced out a foot apart. The whistleblower was also asked to “shred boxes of documents on site, without explanation.” Another federal employee died while working there and the whistleblower replaced that person’s vacant position managing migrants’ backpacks and other belongings. The whistleblower was told not to open backpacks because they may have “illegal drugs” or “toxic substances” inside, according to the official complaint.
Two weeks after opening, the Houston site was suddenly shut down.
The whistleblower was also moved to a facility in Erie, Pa., which was also quickly shut down. “Our client was told that there were dozens of health and safety violations and that the facility did not meet state and local child and adult health and safety requirements,” the complaint said.
In Erie, the federal employee also said children faced dehydration and gastrointestinal problems and that there was a gas leak on the premises. Children’s housing didn’t meet social distancing standards, the whistleblower disclosure also states.
“Any potential incident previously reported would have led to an investigation and disciplinary action. Currently, children at the Emergency Intake Site at Fort Bliss meet with a case manager weekly and we have close to 60 mental health and behavioral counselors on site working with the children,” said a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson, in a written response to the complaint.
The spokesperson added that children are temporarily housed at Fort Bliss for an average of 18 days.
Some 14,000 unaccompanied migrant toddlers, children and teens are currently in the department’s custody. Unaccompanied minors are migrants under age 18, usually from Central America, who arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border without their parent or legal guardian. The government takes these migrants in their custody and reunites them with their family members, often within 35 days.
In Texas, migrant kids are currently held at large-scale emergency shelters in Fort Bliss and Pecos as well as dozens of smaller, formerly state-licensed shelters. Migrant shelters are no longer subject to state health and safety oversight in the wake of an effort by Gov. Greg Abbott to close shelters. State-licensed shelters were widely viewed by attorneys and advocates as a safer alternative to the federal government’s large emergency facilities, like Fort Bliss.
Fort Bliss is also one of the government sites where arriving Afghan evacuees are being processed.