July 7, 2021

[UPDATED] Whistleblowers’ Complaints of Gross Mismanagement at Fort Bliss Immigrant Children’s Site Ignored

Alarming Conditions at Site Managed by Department of Health and Human Services Put Immigrant Children at Needless Risk

WASHINGTON—Today, Government Accountability Project disclosed abuses at the Fort Bliss, Texas Emergency Intake Site (EIS) for undocumented immigrant children by letter to federal oversight agencies. The EIS is run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). The children are in the custody of ORR. Fort Bliss is one of several EIS’s holding them, ostensibly on a temporary basis.

The information disclosed was provided by our whistleblower clients Laurie Elkin and Justin Mulaire, current federal civil servants. As attorneys, they were encouraged by the head of their federal agency to volunteer to support ORR’s work. They were posted to Fort Bliss from mid-May to early-June 2021 to serve as line of sight observers of children.

While at Fort Bliss, they were eyewitnesses to daily instances of gross mismanagement specifically endangering public health and safety. Problems witnessed included:

  • Undue reliance on unskilled private contractor. Ms. Elkin and Mr. Mulaire learned that the lead contractor providing direct supervision of the children — Servpro — is a fire and water damage repair company. It has no experience with youth care. Servpro contractors lacked basic childcare skills and ignored complaints. Yet these contractors ultimately replaced Ms. Elkin and Mr. Mulaire at the facility.
  • Mismanagement from overwhelming size and structure of dormitory tents. The dormitory tents housed upwards of 1,000 or more children and were the size of a football field. Their interiors were undivided and housed approximately 60 rows of bunk beds spaced 18 inches apart. This set up effectively made it impossible for adult observers, like Ms. Elkin and Mr. Mulaire, to see or aid dozens of children lying on lower bunks in emotional and physical distress.
  • Oversight failures. Elkin and Mr. Mulaire repeatedly reported instances involving lack of effective reporting procedures and contractor oversight, active discouragement of reporting problems, and failure to respond to concerns or attempts to improve the site’s conditions.
  • Case management failures. 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. Ms. Elkin and Mr. Mulaire witnessed no communication between case managers and children under their care for sometimes weeks at a time. Many children’s cases slipped through the cracks causing unnecessary, additional traumatization. In one especially horrific case, a girl in ORR custody for over five weeks was told to line up for a bus that was to take her home. Overjoyed, she joined the line to only be pulled out and told there had been a mistake. She was inconsolable.

Ms. Elkin and Mr. Mulaire reported these disturbing conditions to HHS management and the agency’s Office of Inspector General. No remedial action was taken while they were at Fort Bliss.

Ms. Elkin and Mr. Mulaire commented:

“After witnessing the dire conditions at Fort Bliss, we feel it is our obligation to speak out. Regardless of one’s views about immigration policy, the reality is that these unaccompanied children are here now and are in U.S. custody. All children should be treated humanely and safely in America, and greater effort by HHS is needed to ensure that at Fort Bliss.”

In the disclosure letter, Government Accountability Project Senior Counsel David Seide wrote:

“The time our clients spent at Fort Bliss was alarming. Each day seemed to bring new examples of deficiencies in the care of the children and resulting risks to their health. Instances of gross mismanagement were pervasive.”

Government Accountability Project’s disclosure letter can be found here.

Contact: Andrew Harman, Government Accountability Project Communications Director
Phone: (202) 926-3304

Government Accountability Project is the nation’s leading whistleblower protection organization. Through litigating whistleblower cases, publicizing concerns and developing legal reforms, Government Accountability Project’s mission is to protect the public interest by promoting government and corporate accountability. Founded in 1977, Government Accountability Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.