Immigrant children housed at one of the Biden administration's largest emergency shelters were held in overcrowded conditions without adequate masks, resulting in widespread COVID-19 infections, according to a new whistleblower complaint.
The complaint filed by two government employees is the second to come out of Fort Bliss, an army base near El Paso, Texas, which housed thousands of unaccompanied immigrant minors. Earlier this month, the Government Accountability Project filed its initial complaint about conditions at Fort Bliss that included lack of clean underwear and described contractors with no experience in working with children.
In addition to COVID concerns, the two federal employees — Arthur Pearlstein, director of arbitration and of the office of shared neutrals at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, and Lauren Reinhold, an attorney-adviser at the Social Security Administration — who filed the Wednesday complaint said mismanagement resulted in significant mental health issues among the children, as well as delays in being released to family or friends. Both Pearlstein and Reinhold were represented by the Government Accountability Project.
"Gross mismanagement, waste, and abuse of authority by those at the top who insisted on utmost secrecy led to conditions for thousands of children at Fort Bliss that can only be described as constituting mistreatment,” Pearlstein said in a statement.
The children were housed by contractors for the Department of Health and Human Services, Chenega Corporation, and Rapid Deployment Inc. Neither company responded to a request for comment.
“The care and well-being of children in our custody continues to be a top priority for HHS," said an agency spokesperson. "Currently, children at the Emergency Intake Site at Fort Bliss meet with a case manager weekly and we have close to 60 mental health and behavioral counselors on site working with the children. It remains our policy to swiftly report any alleged instances of wrongdoing to the appropriate authorities.”
The complaint said hundreds of children under the government's care contracted COVID and every effort was made to downplay the number of infections. At a town hall for federal workers detailed to Fort Bliss, a senior US Public Health Service manager refused to say how many were infected because “if that graph [of infections] is going to the Washington Post every day, it's the only thing we'll be dealing with and politics will take over, perception will take over, and we're about reality, not perception.”
Reason previously reported that it was Dr. Joseph Hutter, a commander in the US Public Health Service, who made the comment.
Pearlstein, who performed clinical assessments and worked with children as part of the mental health team at Fort Bliss, said major depression and depressive episodes were common. Some children expressed suicidal thoughts. In many cases, these children were sent to "counselors" or federal employees, some of whom had no experience or proper training, Pearlstein said.
The report states mental health clinicians hired by the private contractors to help the children "appeared" to lack appropriate training. Some children told federal employees that requests to see a counselor were ignored or denied.
"In one case, a clinician’s primary response to a boy – who had complained of feeling very depressed and sad – was to tell him that he had nothing to complain about and that, in fact, he should feel grateful for all he was being given," the report adds.
On multiple occasions, groups of children who were told they were going home and had been taken to the airport were suddenly told it was a mistake and returned to Fort Bliss. The children returned shocked and distressed.
The 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.
"The Fort Bliss children did not and could not trust that they were safe, that their basic needs would be met, or that their sponsorship/placement cases were being timely processed," the report states. "The most frequent complaint heard from children was that they were in a state of total uncertainty and anxiety, with no idea of what to expect next."
Federal employees said that when they tried to express concerns about waste, fraud, and abuse at Fort Bliss, they were told by their managers that the contractors were in charge. By mid-May, nearly 800 federal employees were sent to Fort Bliss, but the two whistleblowers said there was virtually no effort to assign detainees based on their skills and experience.
Reinhold said people hired by contractors said they did nothing more than submit employment applications, with no vetting, interviews, or phone calls before being offered jobs. Reinhold said near the end of May she learned that staff at Chenega and Servpro, one of the contractors named in the previous complaint, who were already working with children were undergoing background checks on a mass scale.
"It is my hope that ORR will develop a long-term humanitarian plan with adequate contractor oversight to house children in better conditions, and to place them with U.S. sponsors more expeditiously,” Reinhold said in a statement.