Covid and mental health problems rampant at Texas shelter for migrant kids, whistleblower says

It’s not the first time Fort Bliss has been accused of poor conditions

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Friday 30 July 2021 01:16
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The more than 1,600 children being held in Texas at the Fort Bliss Army base, the government’s largest detention facility for migrant children, are facing utterly abysmal conditions, according to a whistleblower complaint: Covid outbreaks, mental health breakdowns, poor sanitation and underwear shortages, and inadequate care from under-trained federal contractors with no experience working with children.

The administration’s struggles around adequate immigration care seem set to continue. Last month, Customs and Border Protection encountered over 188,000 undocumented immigrants, a 21-year-high.

What’s more, federal employees who worked at the massive tent camp were told to cover up the disfunction and Covid problems at the facility and “when asked, to make everything sound positive about the Fort Bliss experience and to play down anything negative."

These are the latest allegations of mistreatment at the sprawling Army facility, and come from a whistleblower complaint from two federal employees filed on Wednesday by the Government Accountability Project.

"Covid was widespread among children and eventually spread to many employees. Hundreds of children contracted Covid in the overcrowded conditions. Adequate masks were not consistently provided to children, nor was their use consistently enforced," the complaint, from government employees Arthur Pearlstein and Lauren Reinhold, reads.

The fetid, prison-like atmosphere of the camp took its toll on the young asylum-seekers who arrived at the facility outside of El Paso after being apprehended by the Border Patrol, according to the report.

"Many, if not most, of the children Mr Pearlstein interviewed — if they had been at the facility more than a few days — told him they felt like they were in prison and often begged ‘please get me out of here, I don’t know if I can take it anymore,’" the complaint, which has has been forwarded to Congress and federal watchdog agencies, continues. "In some cases, children tried to escape the facility."

Authorities at the camp monitored the children for escape attempts, self-harm, and panic attacks, and banned pencils, nail clippers, and regular toothbrushes for fear of them harming themselves or each other.

Those migrants who did seek treatment, the complaint alleges, either didn’t have access to counsellors, or were paired with federal contractors or employees with no experience offering mental health care. They also report minimal to no contact with their government case managers.

"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 says.

None of the three main federal contractors running the emergency shelter at Fort Bliss — Servpro, Chenega, and Rapid Deployment Inc — have experience with child care.

Chenega and Rapid Deployment did not respond to a request for comment from The Independent.“This youth care services work – which was entered into without our knowledge – involved an independently owned and operated SERVPRO franchise,” a Servpro corporate spokesperson told The Independent. “When we became aware of this issue, we immediately advised the franchise operator that these are not approved SERVPRO service offerings. We have been informed by the franchise operator that it is no longer providing these services through the SERVPRO franchise.”

One federal employee at Fort Bliss compared the experience to being at a “dystopian summer camp”.

“They just did not want to be there because they felt it was a jail,” the federal employee, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told CBS News. “Getting no status updates destroys those kids’ mental health. Everyone is terrified of being forgotten."

“The care and well-being of children in our custody continues to be a top priority for HHS. 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,” an HHS spokesperson told The Independent in a statement. “It remains our policy to swiftly report any alleged instances of wrongdoing to the appropriate authorities.”

The Fort Bliss shelter was one of more than a dozen “emergency intake sites” set up to handle an increased number of border crossers arriving in the Southern US, many of them seeking humanitarian protections that had mostly been walled off during the Trump administration.

HHS, which has received a previous whistleblower complaint at Fort Bliss earlier this month, has said it has increased recreation and mental health services at the facility.

"We take our humanitarian mission and the well-being of children in our care seriously," the agency said at the time.

As of Tuesday, Fort Bliss housed around 1,682 children, including 1,145 boys and 547 girls, who are supposed to be paired with family members in the US as they await the results of their asylum proceedings.

Compared with normal HHS facilities, emergency shelters have a lower standard of care and aren’t required to meet the same licensing rules for child care.

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