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Whistleblowers allege poor conditions at Fort Bliss facility for migrant children

<i>Joe Raedle/Getty Images</i><br/>The Fort Bliss facility was intended to serve as a temporary stop but children in some cases stayed for weeks.
Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
The Fort Bliss facility was intended to serve as a temporary stop but children in some cases stayed for weeks.

By Priscilla Alvarez, CNN

Two more whistleblowers have come forward alleging that migrant children who stayed at the Fort Bliss facility near El Paso, Texas, received poor care, according to a complaint obtained by CNN.

The issues include mismanagement by private contractors, shortage of underwear and other clothing, and anxiety among children unsure of what to expect next, according to whistleblowers Arthur Pearlstein, a director at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, and Lauren Reinhold, an attorney-adviser at the Social Security Administration.

Pearlstein and Reinhold personally spent “hundreds” on books, games and other items for children, the complaint says, to make up for shortcomings at the facility.

Wednesday’s complaint is the second filed by the Government Accountability Project in less than a month that underscore problems at Fort Bliss.

Over the spring, the Biden administration established more than a dozen emergency intake sites to alleviate overcrowding at border facilities and accommodate a record number of unaccompanied migrant children. The facilities are overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services, which is charged with the care of migrant children. As of late July, only five emergency intake sites remain open, according to HHS.

Among the largest of the intake sites is a facility at Fort Bliss that has a potential capacity of up to 10,000 beds. Attorneys who previously visited the facility have likened it to “warehousing” hundreds of children.

The facility came under heavy scrutiny for subpar conditions and the prolonged periods of time children were staying at the facility before reuniting with a sponsor, like a parent or relative, in the United States. It was also the subject of another whistleblower complaint filed in early July.

In a statement to CNN on Wednesday, an HHS spokesperson said, “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,” the spokesperson added. “It remains our policy to swiftly report any alleged instances of wrongdoing to the appropriate authorities.”

Generally, the pop-up facilities, like Fort Bliss, took the shape of emergency shelters, offering basic necessities but falling short of providing other services, like education and case management, to the hundreds of children housed at the sites. Conditions at emergency intake sites varied — and regularly changed — but in some cases, the rapid pace at which sites were set up contributed to their shortcomings and fueled criticism.

One point of contention was the extended periods of time children stayed at the Fort Bliss facility, which was intended to serve as a temporary stop but children in some cases stayed for weeks. The whistleblowers in Wednesday’s complaint highlighted the poor planning, citing incidents where children were told they were going home, only to be taken back to the facility.

“On multiple occasions, groups of children who were told they were going home and had already arrived at the airport for a flight out, were suddenly told it was a mistake and brought back to the facility,” the complaints reads. “Indeed, on at least two occasions, children who had already boarded airplanes were forced to get off.”

As of Wednesday, the average length of stay at Fort Bliss is 14 days, according to HHS.

Covid spread

The whistleblowers also said Covid-19 spread in the facility, alleging that adequate masks were not consistently provided to children or regularly enforced. According to a recent court filing, there were 327 children in medical isolation who had tested positive for Covid-19 at Fort Bliss, as of July 12.

Under HHS care, migrant children ages 12 and over are offered a Covid-19 vaccine as soon as possible.

HHS has a licensed bed capacity of around 13,500 equipped with a myriad of services, such as education and recreation, but given capacity constraints related to the pandemic, the department had to rely on temporary sites to accommodate children. As the number of children declines, the department has been increasingly relying on — and attempting to grow — its licensed bed capacity.

As of July 26, there are 13,752 children in HHS care, according to government data.

This story has been updated with a statement from the US Department of Health and Human Services.

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