Two Whistleblowers Send Letter to Congress Alleging Mistreatment of Immigrant Children
This article features our clients 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 an Emergency Intake Site (EIS) in Texas. The EIS is run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the two whistleblowers allege that unaccompanied, undocumented immigrant children were put in danger at the facility.
The two whistleblowers, Laurie Elkin and Justin Mulaire, took up a 30-day volunteer post at Fort Bliss, a military base outside of El Paso, Texas. Fort Bliss was set up in 2018 by HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) “to care for 20,000 children at one time.” Elkin and Mulaire responded to a call for federal employees to take a temporary assignment, or detail, with HHS “to help address the influx of unaccompanied minors at the southern border,” the letter states.
The letter was sent by the Government Accountability Project (GAP) on behalf of the whistleblowers 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.
Elkin and Mulaire volunteered for 30-day posts and were assigned to start working at the site on May 12, 2021. The whistleblowers first identified concerns during the orientation, in which the volunteers did not hear from any individual working for ORR, “the lead agency responsible for the well-being of the children.” The letter states that “[n]o contact information for any ORR employees was provided,” but near the end of their details, the whistleblowers “learned that ORR representatives were on site.”
The letter states that during the orientation, Elkin and Mulaire were informed that to provide “feedback” about any issues, volunteers should email a “suggestion box” sent to an HHS.gov email address. “They were also told not to provide such feedback during their first ten days on the job,” the letter reports. The letter also states that the whistleblowers waited the directed ten days but “[t]he problems they identified were obvious at the outset and continued unremedied through their last day on June 2, 2021.”
Allegations Concerning Childcare
The whistleblowers allege that “[n]either ORR not HHS appeared to play any direct role in running the tents” that the children were kept in at the facility. There were six tents being used to house the children, and each of the tents had the capacity of “between 1000 and 1500 beds.” Elkin was assigned to the girls’ tent, while Mulaire was assigned to “one of the boys’ tents.” The tents that the whistleblowers were assigned to housed children ages 13-17, and the whistleblowers “worked a schedule of 12 hours per day, six days per week,” according to the letter.
Elkin and Mulaire claim that the federal employees running the tents were not from ORR or HHS but from other branches of the government like the General Services Administration, the Department of Labor, and the Drug Enforcement Administration. The letter states that the federal employees were given “little instruction” as to how to oversee and interact with the children; some employees ended up buying board games and arts and craft supplies with their own money for the children to have activities.
Elkin and Mulaire allege that they witnessed “numerous instances of gross mismanagement, causing harm to children’s health and wellbeing.” They state that the massive size and bunk bed setup of each tent made it “impossible” to provide line-of-sight supervision for most of the children. “And these children were and are at risk. They were separated from their parents and family, their community and culture. They are unmoored from most everything that provides a sense of safety and security,” the letter emphasizes.
The whistleblowers also allege that they both experienced instances in which they “discovered multiple children who reported medical problems — ranging from unexplained pain to profuse bleeding.” Some of the children the whistleblowers encountered “were deeply upset and anxious about their situation and wanted to talk to a counselor. These were not children who were likely to get up out of bed and seek assistance from an adult,” the letter states.
Additionally, a language barrier existed between the children at the facility and the federal detailees. According to the letter, “[v]irtually all of the children did not speak English, and most federal detailees in the dormitories did not speak Spanish or the other indigenous languages spoken by the children.” Mulaire speaks “some Spanish, Ms. Elkin less” — the letter highlights that the children in crisis that the whistleblowers discovered “were likely only a fraction of those with unaddressed medical, emotional and other needs.”
Failures at the Facility
Elkin and Mulaire “further report that the tents were dirty and often had a foul odor like a locker room. Moreover, because of the numerous portable restroom facilities, the odor of sewage was not uncommon at the EIS.” When sandstorms occurred, “the air inside the tents became visibly cloudy with dust, which made its way into everyone’s eyes, ears, and lungs.” Additionally, the whistleblowers note that though some children were housed at this location “for as long as two months” or even longer, “it appeared their bedding was never washed; many beds were visibly dirty.” The children also seemed to lack clean underwear and socks, “which in turn made them reluctant to exercise or to bathe because they knew they lacked clean clothes to change into.”
“Perhaps the single greatest problem observed by Ms. Elkin and Mr. Mulaire was the use of wholly unsuitable contract staff,” the letter reads. The whistleblowers found out that Servpro, the contractor “providing direct supervision of the children in the dormitory tents,” is “a fire and water damage repair company.” Elkin and Mulaire were told by contractor staff that “they had received no training prior to beginning work and had little guidance about what their role was.” The letter notes that the whistleblowers felt as though many of the contract workers “seemed to view their job more as crowd control than youth care.” In several instances in which children were in crisis and reached out for an adult’s help, the whistleblowers allege that the contractors’ response exacerbated the situations, making children wait for hours to seek medical or mental health treatment or not taking children’s needs seriously.
Mishandling of Cases
The whistleblowers also each had separate experiences witnessing extreme flaws in the case management system at Fort Bliss. “By law, ORR must place children in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interests of the child, which means that ORR facilities provide case management services for each child. The primary goal of case management services is to place children with a sponsor within the United States so that they can be released from HHS custody,” the whistleblowers’ letter explains. The facility used a different contractor for case management than for child supervision. According to the letter, “[t]here was no official mechanism in the dormitories for children to report that their case had seemed to have fallen through the cracks, or to communicate relevant information they may have learned from a phone call to their family. They simply had to wait, sometimes for weeks, for a case worker to contact them.”
Both whistleblowers came across multiple children who said they had not met with their case worker “in weeks.” Mulaire advocated for one young boy to see his case worker, with whom he had not met for 27 days. Mulaire decided to seek help for the boy at the Case Management tent, even though “federal detailees had no official channel for reporting such problems.” The case management worker told Mulaire that the boy had “been forgotten” and was quickly able to notify the boy’s case worker. “If not for Mr. Mulaire’s intervention there is no saying how long this young boy would have remained at Fort Bliss, unnecessarily lost in the system,” the letter reads.
In another heartbreaking situation described in the letter, Elkin witnessed a young girl being told she was able to go home but later told that because of a “mistake,” she was not, in fact, able to go home that day. “An ORR staffer told Ms. Elkin, ‘We are traumatizing these kids. This is terrible. This is horrible. People in Washington know. But this is an emergency situation and mistakes are going to happen.’” The staffer also said that this exact “mistake” had occurred to 47 other children the same morning.
After waiting the 10-day period to make complaints (which was mentioned to the detailees in the orientation), “Ms. Elkin and Mr. Mulaire repeatedly reported their concerns to HHS, which largely ignored them. As a result, Ms. Elkin and Mr. Mulaire also contacted the HHS Office of Inspector General (OIG),” the letter states.
On May 21, in the latter half of the whistleblowers’ time at Fort Bliss, Mulaire emailed the HHS “suggestion box” to report “the extreme volume of the loudspeakers” in one of the tents, expressing concern that the loud music they would play through the speakers and use to wake up the children did not seem to be helpful. According to the letter, HHS never responded during Mulaire’s time at Fort Bliss. Mulaire sent a second email to the suggestion box on the following day detailing some more concerns he had, but again, HHS never responded.
On May 26 and 29, Mulaire “prepared three handwritten HHS Incident Reports forms which he emailed on May 29 to ORR representatives he had learned were on site at Fort Bliss.” The forms reiterated the issues with the loudspeakers Mulaire emailed about previously. When he first tried to submit physical copies of the Incident Report forms, “a staffer in the Administrative tent told him such reports could not be accepted because they did not concern specific children.” When Mr. Mulaire asked how else to report the problems he identified, the Administrative tent staffer told Mr. Mulaire she did not know of a way to do that and did not know of a way to find out.” The letter states that HHS never responded to the Incident Reports.
Mulaire filed a second OIG complaint on May 30 expressing concerns about the loud music over the speakers, Servpro’s handling of their employees, and HHS’ lack of “an effective reporting system for disclosing problems with Servpro to HHS management,” and the fact that “HHS apparently lacked the ability to oversee or interest in monitoring Servpro.” According to the letter, “HHS OIG has not responded to Mr. Mulaire’s complaints to date.”
The whistleblowers only received a response to their complaints two days after their temporary post ended. The letter states that someone who said he was from the Contracting Officer Representative contacted Mulaire and attempted to address Mulaire’s concerns about the loud music. The staff member’s “only question was, other than loud music, how else Mr. Mulaire suggested to wake up the children” — Mulaire asked the individual if they could discuss the other complaints, but the staff member said no. This was the first and last follow-up Mulaire received.
In closing the letter, GAP urges the Congressmembers to investigate the whistleblowers’ allegations. “Whatever one might think about immigration policy, the reality is that these children are here now and are in HHS’s custody. HHS has a responsibility to make sure they are safe and treated humanely,” the letter states.
Responses to the Whistleblower Allegations
In a July 7 NBC News article, a Servpro Industries spokesperson explained that “the contract was entered into by a franchise holder without the company’s knowledge and that therefore Servpro did not have a comment on the specific allegations.” The spokesperson told NBC News that Servpro was “informed by the franchise operator that it is no longer providing these services through the Servpro franchise.”
An HHS spokesperson was cited in the NBC News article as stating, “We take our humanitarian mission and the well-being of children in our care seriously. HHS has taken action to improve the conditions at Fort Bliss and at all Emergency Intake Sites. Children are receiving nutritionally appropriate meals and there are now 60 mental health professionals on site at Fort Bliss and counselors at all other emergency intake sites.” NBC News reports that the HHS spokesperson “did not comment on how a Servpro franchise got the contract for Fort Bliss.”
The whistleblowers’ letter has already garnered attention from lawmakers: on July 8, Representative Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ) urged the Biden administration to “pursue community-based alternatives to detention that put the welfare of children first.” Rep. Grijalva also called for an “independent investigation” into the whistleblowers’ claims and stated: “These allegations are horrific and have no place in our asylum system. Children do not belong in detention, and I’ve long advocated for the closure of these types of facilities. Those fleeing violence from their home countries should be met with compassion, dignity, and quality care that recognizes their hardships.”