More Whistleblowers Call Attention to Mistreatment of Immigrant Children

This article features our clients Arthur Pearlstein, Lauren Reinhold, Laurie Elkin, and Justin Mulaire and was originally published here.

On July 7, two whistleblowers sent a letter to Congress alleging “gross mismanagement and specific endangerment to public health and safety” at the Fort Bliss Emergency Intake Site (EIS) in Texas. The site is run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), and the two whistleblowers allege that unaccompanied, undocumented immigrant children were put in danger at the facility. On July 28, two more whistleblowers sent a second letter to Congress alleging “gross mismanagement” at Fort Bliss, where immigrant children are being kept.

Arthur Pearlstein and Lauren Reinhold are two federal civil servants joining Laurie Elkin and Justin Mulaire in blowing the whistle on conditions at the Fort Bliss EIS. Both of the whistleblowers’ letters were sent by advocacy group the Government Accountability Project (GAP) to the U.S. House of Representatives Committees on Energy and Commerce and Oversight and Reform and the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions and the Committee on Homeland Security & Government Affairs. The letter is also addressed to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel and HHS’ Office of Inspector General.

Pearlstein and Reinhold, who worked at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service and the Social Security Administration, respectively, both served as volunteer detailees at Fort Bliss. Pearlstein spent two months at the site and Reinhold one. At the site, Pearlstein was tasked with “performing clinical assessments on the Clinical Assessment Team” and “working with small groups and individual children on the Mental Health/Wellness team.” Reinhold “worked in the girls’ tent for the first half of her detail” and in the latter half “was on the Call Center Team, and worked in all tents.” As per the previous whistleblower letter GAP filed, “In May 2021, the Fort Bliss EIS housed 4,800 children.”

Private Contractors at Fort Bliss

The July 28 letter to Congress from Pearlstein and Reinhold expands on allegations of mismanagement at the hands of federal contractors at Fort Bliss. “When the federal detailees arrived at Fort Bliss in April and May 2021, Chenega was the contractor most spoken of,” the letter states. However, the letter claims that Chenega Corporation “appears to have no childcare experience.” This is the same complaint whistleblowers Elkin and Mulaire lodged against Servpro, another federal contractor at Fort Bliss. “According to our clients, it was not clear which contractor (Chenega or Servpro) was less suited to the work — it appears neither had experience with it, nor did they perform competently or appropriately,” the letter states. The letter also mentions Rapid Deployment Inc., which “appears to be” the lead contractor at the site and also “has no childcare experience.”

“Federal detailees witnessed significant waste, fraud and abuse,” Pearlstein and Reinhold’s letter states. “When they attempted to express their concerns to federal managers they were told — time and again — it was the contractors that were in charge and government employees needed to be responsive to the contractors’ needs. The contractors ignored or rejected most detailee concerns.” An example of the detailees’ lack of power is when they repeatedly brought up the fact that many children did not have underwear, a problem that “persisted for weeks and months.” When detailees tried to draw attention to this issue, “they were told it was the contractor’s responsibility,” and the letter does not address whether this serious issue was ever addressed or resolved.

The letter states that detailees witnessed a disturbing occurrence of sexual harassment by construction workers towards girls at the facility, but when they “attempted to report the incident,” the managers “resisted taking their complaints.”

Mismanagement and Miscommunication

“By mid-May 2021, almost 800 federal detailees were assigned to the Fort Bliss EIS. However, our clients report there was virtually no effort to assign these detailees based on their skills and experience – which were considerable,” the letter states. According to the letter, “[d]etailees with very relevant expertise were not matched to appropriate positions, resulting in both underutilization of talent on the one hand, and employees assigned to work for which they were not qualified on the other.” For example, the letter reports that there were detailees “with no relevant skills or experience” on the EIS Clinical Assessment Team, which “worked directly with the children to assess their history of abuse, their mental and emotional health, and their exposure to sex or labor trafficking.”

The whistleblowers’ letter also details communication failures at the site: management “repeatedly told detailees that, within days, all girls would be transferred” to “other facilities or placements,” but would then reverse course about the transfer several times. Pearlstein and Reinhold also corroborated a story that was described in the first whistleblowers’ letter, stating that in several instances children would be told they were going home, sometimes even making it to the airport or even on the plane, before being “suddenly told it was a mistake and brought back to the facility.” Pearlstein and Reinhold also encountered several children who had not spoken to their case managers in months or had never even been assigned a case manager.

COVID-19 at Fort Bliss

“COVID was widespread among children and eventually spread to many employees. Hundreds of children contracted COVID in the overcrowded conditions,” the letter states. The facility did not provide the children with adequate masks or consistently enforce their usage. “Every effort was made to downplay the degree of COVID infection at the site, and the size of the outbreak was deliberately kept under wraps,” according to the letter. In one meeting with detailees, a senior U.S. Public Health Service manager “was asked and refused to say how many were infected,” providing the justification that if the numbers were published in The Washington Post, “‘it’s the only thing we’ll be dealing with and politics will take over, perception will take over, and we’re about reality, not perception.’” The manager would only “acknowledge is that several children had to be hospitalized.”

“The manager also dismissed a detailee’s concern that the children in the COVID tents were wearing basic disposable masks instead of N95 masks,” the letter reports. “The manager said N95 masks were unnecessary for the infected – even though uninfected detailees were working with the infected children.” The manager also seemed to display a lack of concern about a shortage of lice kits, even though “the spread of lice was so serious that a girls’ tent with hundreds of occupants was on lockdown due to lice.”

Children’s Mental Health and General Lack of Wellbeing

Pearlstein “personally interviewed or worked with dozens of children who had symptoms of serious depression, including some who expressed suicidal thoughts.” The letter states that “[i]n many instances, suffering children were referred to “counselors” – other detailees. Some had relevant skills. Others had no prior training or experience (they did their best under the circumstances).” The letter emphasizes that “mental health clinicians specifically employed by a private contractor to deal with referrals from across the facility appeared to lack appropriate training and experience.” Detailees heard from children who had unhelpful experiences with clinicians — or even making requests to see counselors or clinicians “and being ignored or denied.”

Pearlstein also reported that “[m]any, if not most, of the children he interviewed” who had been at the facility for more than a few days “told him they felt like they were in prison and often begged “please get me out of here, I don’t know if I can take it anymore.”

Pearlstein and Reinhold shared similar sentiments to whistleblowers Elkin and Mulaire about the overwhelming dormitory tent size and filthy conditions, worsened by the dust storms in the area. The letter states that the federal detailees were also under duress and anxious. “Complaints to management were often met with dismissal or retribution,” according to the letter.

Confidentiality about Life at Fort Bliss

“Detailees were frequently reminded that everything at Fort Bliss was confidential,” which the letter states “ensured no effective oversight or accountability.” Because of a lack of transparency about the identity of the federal contracting officer, detailees “had no internal recourse” other than a “suggestion box” method, which was an email address. GAP’s July 7 letter to Congress details at length one of the whistleblower’s repeated attempted to get in touch with someone via the suggestion box email to no avail.

“The information provided by Mr. Pearlstein and Ms. Reinhold corroborates and goes beyond the reports from our other federal employee clients who volunteered to help the unaccompanied children warehoused by ORR at Fort Bliss, and elsewhere. Their information further reveals violations of law, rule and policy, gross mismanagement, gross waste of resources, abuses of authority and specific dangers to public health and safety. For all these reasons, we ask you to continue to investigate this matter,” the letter concludes.

In GAP’s July 28 press release about the letter to Congress, Pearlstein said: “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. 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.”

“While I am pleased that HHS recruited Federal employees to assist with the influx of unaccompanied children crossing the border, I feel our talents and input were underutilized,” Reinhold said. “It is my hope that ORR will develop a long-term humanitarian plan with adequate contractor oversight to house children in better conditions, and to place them with U.S. sponsors more expeditiously.”

HHS’ Office of Inspector General, Others Respond to the Whistleblower Allegations

A July 28 NBC News article on the whistleblowers’ letter reported: “Neither Chenega Corporation nor Rapid Deployment Inc. responded to requests for comment. A spokesperson for Servpro previously said a franchise holder operated the contract and the company ‘immediately advised the franchise operator that these are not approved Servpro offerings.’”

In a statement to NBC News, an HHS spokesperson said, “The care and well-being of children in our custody continues to be a top priority for HHS. 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. It remains our policy to swiftly report any alleged instances of wrongdoing to the appropriate authorities.”

On August 2, the HHS’ Office of Inspector General Twitter account (@OIGatHHS) tweeted: “New Work Plan Item: HHS-OIG will analyze interviews and on-site observations regarding case management challenges at Fort Bliss, Texas that may have impeded the safe and timely release of children to sponsors.” The tweet links to a page on the HHS OIG website entitled “Reported Experiences of Staff at Fort Bliss Emergency Intake Site” and gives context for the Fort Bliss EIS site.

“In the months since [Fort Bliss] opened, several individuals have raised concerns about the quality of case management provided there, and its negative impact on children’s safety and well-being,” the webpage states. “This review will analyze interviews and on-site observations regarding case management challenges at Fort Bliss that may have impeded the safe and timely release of children to sponsors. This oversight will help ensure that Fort Bliss and other EISs provide adequate case management services.”

According to a table on the bottom of the page, the report, numbered OEI-07-21-00251, is expected to be issued in fiscal year 2021.