Poor conditions, allegations of sexual abuse and “gross mismanagement” continue to plague the Fort Bliss detention camp for migrant children, according to a new report and statements from former staff. The allegations come despite a recent visit from U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra where he touted the diminished number of children at the facility and overall improvements.
Two former employees of the facility — tasked with watching over the children from mid-May to early-June — came forward with a whistleblower account released by the Government Accountability Project on Wednesday, documenting a litany of problems they witnessed at the El Paso-area tent facility. The Government Accountability Project is a nonprofit organization that advocates for and litigates on behalf of government whistleblowers.
A separate staff member at the facility, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution, has confirmed with El Paso Matters that many of the conditions described in the whistleblower account were present at the facility as of last week, despite the lower number of children being held there.
When Sec. Becerra visited the facility in late June, he said the numbers had dropped dramatically to 790 children, all boys, down from over 4,000 children in late May. But a recent fact sheet provided by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of HHS that oversees facilities for migrant children, stated that numbers had increased, and were 1,025 as of July 2. The staff member who asked not to be identified said that numbers have continued to increase since then, exceeding 2,000. The new figures include migrant girls.
A cluster of large soft-sided tents, the Fort Bliss site was rapidly established earlier in the spring to transfer a large number of children out of Customs and Border Protection holding facilities. As an emergency intake site, the facility is not subject to the same standards of care for minors as state licensed facilities.
In late May, the size of the facility swelled to nearly 5,000, with reports that officials had expanded capacity to potentially house up to 10,000 children. U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D- El Paso, toured the tent city at the time and voiced concerns about poor conditions and minimal oversight for contractors.
Since then, several media outlets have reported on staff accounts that detailed unsafe and unhygienic conditions and allegations of sexual abuse toward children housed there. In late June, federal officials announced there would be an investigation into conditions at the facility.
The two whistleblowers, Laurie Elkin and Justin Mulaire, said there were significant problems when they tried to report on incidents that caused harm to the children at the facility. They described widespread indifference among staff and supervisors toward children in medical distress and active discouragement from helping children seek medical care.
Elkin and Mulaire said they were initially told not to submit complaints at all, a gag order that is a violation of the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act. Later, once permitted to file complaints about misconduct and problems at the facility, their reports to HHS were ignored.
Despite several email inquiries to HHS from El Paso Matters, HHS has yet to respond directly to specific questions about recent conditions at the facility and has instead only sent a general fact sheet about the site.
Staff at the facility have continued to encounter substantial barriers when trying to report incidents with the children, particularly those related to staff misconduct, according to the staff member who asked not to be identified.
In the whistleblower report, Mulaire said he only received one response about a concern he had reported from a Contracting Officer Representative (COR). It was to a single issue within a long list of concerns he had reported. When he asked if he could discuss other incidents and problems he had observed, he was told no by the COR. Mulaire said the representative told him it would be “perceived as a crying wolf situation.”
Elkin and Mulaire described how the nature of the tent structures exacerbates poor conditions within the facility because they are partially open-air facilities that allow dust and dirt to blow into the dormitory tents. They described how lagging and inadequate laundering of bedding and clothing means that kids are often forced to sleep and spend their days in filthy conditions.
“Dust and sand were everywhere,” the whistleblower report said. “When sandstorms occurred (as they periodically do in El Paso), the air inside the tents became visibly cloudy with dust, which made its way into everyone’s eyes, ears, and lungs.”
The physical structure of the tents affected the children during El Paso’s recent historic rains, with some leaking tents and flooding issues at the facility.
El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego, who has visited the facility and receives regular updates about its operations, said he thinks that local state-licensed facilities are better equipped to care for migrant children.
“We should focus on licensed facilities,” he said, adding that the cost at Fort Bliss is $1100 per day per child and costs at the licensed facilities in El Paso are “around $350.” He also said the services for children at the licensed facilities are more extensive and some of the local facilities include gymnasiums, classrooms, and better staffing ratios.
Elkin and Mulaire also reported how poor case management contributed to the childrens’ poor mental health and emotional distress.
“We are traumatizing these kids. This is terrible,” Elkin said an Office of Refugee Resettlement staffer had told her. “This is horrible. People in Washington know. But this is an emergency situation and mistakes are going to happen.”
Cover photo: Prayer petitions and drawings made by children detained at the Fort Bliss shelter, courtesy Hope Border Institute.