Immigrant children housed at one of the Biden administration's emergency shelters were burned after bathing in scalding water, had their blood drawn without explanation, and were repeatedly threatened with deportation, according to a new whistleblower complaint.
It's the third and latest complaint to come out of Fort Bliss, an army base near El Paso, Texas, which houses thousands of immigrant children who crossed the border without their parents. In July, the Government Accountability Project filed two complaints about Fort Bliss that included COVID-19 outbreaks due to overcrowding and contractors with no experience in working with children.
The children were housed by contractors for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
In a statement, HHS said it acts quickly to concerns and has closed sites for immigrant children that didn't meet its standards. The agency also said it is their policy to quickly report any alleged instances of wrongdoing to authorities.
"Any potential incident previously reported would have led to an investigation and disciplinary action," an HHS spokesperson said. "The care and well-being of children in our custody continues to be a top priority for HHS."
"In the aftermath of our disclosures, HHS asserts that the fundamental failures our clients identified are 'old' and have been 'fixed,'" the whistleblower report states. "To the contrary, the problems are ongoing, systemic, and repeated...with tragic consequences. It is true these are old issues; it is not true they have been fixed."
The federal employee who filed the complaint on Wednesday shared their experiences while volunteering at Fort Bliss, as well as two other emergency intake sites in Houston, Texas, and Erie, Pennsylvania. Over six days in May, the whistleblower obtained emails — which were not reviewed by BuzzFeed News — to Fort Bliss managers summarizing grievances filed by children and staff, according to the letter. But the whistleblower said the issues were never remedied during the time they were stationed there.
While at the Pennsylvania International Academy facility, the whistleblower learned that many children suffered from dehydration, developed gastrointestinal issues, and refused to eat the food provided because it was inedible or unfamiliar. The federal employee also said a floor set aside for children who had tested positive for the coronavirus was understaffed, crowded, and had a gas leak.
Children were sent to the shower room at the Pennsylvania facility to remove lice, which was rampant, by gender. However, a staffer of a different gender than the children tried to remain in the shower room, the complaint states. After other employees protested, the staffer initially left, but on more than one occasion allegedly returned after the people who complained stepped out.
"The staffer then participated in the lice removal process within a few feet of where the tender age girls were showering," the whistleblower complaint states.
Echoing past whistleblower complaints, the federal employee said that at Fort Bliss they learned that of the 20 staffers on the mental health team, only two were licensed and trained in mental health work.
The complaint also states that a girl was taken to a hospital with 13 pregnant immigrants and had blood drawn without explanation despite not being pregnant. Children also reported that their skin burned or blistered from "skin lightening" lotion given to them instead of moisturizers.
Girls also said that contractors in their tents threatened to report them if they didn't want to go to a meal, telling them that their immigration judge will see the reports and send them back to their countries.
Nearly every child who met with the mental health team was also concerned that they had not yet seen a case manager who works on getting them released to a sponsor, such as a family member or friend in the US.
The concerns about not seeing caseworkers are not new.
In a previous complaint, two whistleblowers said they spoke to dozens of children who had been at Fort Bliss for more than 30 days, some approaching or even exceeding 60 days. Many of the children said they hadn't spoken to their case managers in over a month. Others said they had not been assigned to one.
HHS said that children at Fort Bliss currently meet with a case manager weekly and that the site has close to 60 mental health and behavioral counselors on the ground working with the minors.
"We have increased case management services to unite children safely and expeditiously with family, while we continue to improve and streamline this process," HHS said.
Children at Fort Bliss are there for an average of 18 days and HHS' Office of Refugee Resettlement has unified 8,000 immigrant minors with a parent or sponsor from the Texas facility, HHS said.