Government Accountability Project represents ten whistleblowers, both federal employee detailees and contractors, who have raised concerns about unsafe conditions for minors and operational failures, including case management and sponsorship problems, at the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) emergency site at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas.
Our first whistleblower clients were federal employees who volunteered on detail to support efforts to receive unaccompanied minors at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. Following their volunteer details, they first shared their concerns with HHS OIG in 2021 as they witnessed horrific harms to children, including lack of medical care, serious case management flaws resulting in lengthy detention, and poor conditions for children particularly held in enormous tent structures. Initially, two whistleblowers, Justin Mulaire and Laurie Elkin, raised their concerns publicly. Soon after, two more federal volunteers, Arthur Pearlstein and Lauren Reinhold, spoke out about what they witnessed at Fort Bliss. In April 2022, our client Kaitlin Hess chose to make her whistleblower concerns public as HHS had yet to make assurances that conditions for children had improved at Fort Bliss. This public pressure spurred the HHS OIG to initiate investigations into ORR operations at Fort Bliss and prompted some operational improvements. The remainder of our whistleblower clients have chosen to remain anonymous, some fearing retaliation.
In early 2023, reports surfaced that children who passed through HHS custody were found in situations of hazardous and unlawful child labor, including, for example, overnight clean-up of slaughterhouses. HHS has since conducted audits and investigations into release operations of children from custody, but gaps remain in oversight, including failures to address the lack of childcare experience of companies contracted to manage care of children in ORR custody. Government Accountability Project continues to monitor oversight problems and the treatment of unaccompanied minors in HHS ORR emergency sites.