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Whistleblower group renews calls for safety investigation into migrant kids at Fort Bliss

A photo provided by a source shows migrant children walking outside tents inside a camp at Fort Bliss, Texas. (credit: obtained by CBS News)
A photo provided by a source shows migrant children walking outside tents inside a camp at Fort Bliss, Texas. (credit: obtained by CBS News)
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There is a new call to investigate the health and safety of migrant children who are housed at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas.

The Government Accountability Project, which represents whistleblowers, on Tuesday sent a letter to Congress and the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (HHS) to investigate and assess whether the conditions at the Fort Bliss Emergency Intake Site (EIS) and other EISs for unaccompanied migrant children reported by multiple whistleblowers last summer have improved.

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Whistleblower accounts given to the Government Accountability Project detailed "gross mismanagement, chaos and substandard conditions at the Fort Bliss Emergency Intake Site (EIS) in Texas and other EISs, managed by HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), that endangered the health and safety of the thousands of unaccompanied children," the letter stated.

The letter also includes information from Kaitlin Hess, who for the first time identified herself publicly as a whistleblower.

Hess, an Environmental Protection Agency employee and volunteer, was deployed to Fort Bliss from May to June last year to help with the influx of unaccompanied migrant children, according to the letter.

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Her job duties at Fort Bliss included "case management support such as visiting the dormitory tents, transporting children from tents to their case managers and back, printing lists of children with whom case managers requested to meet." she also worked with children "undergoing mental duress," the letter stated.

While at Fort Bliss, Hess stated that she frequently saw children crying, in distress and some who were "lost" in the system.

Hess provided an example where two brothers were separated. One was put on a bus that was departing while the other remained at the shelter. The two, however, were eventually reunited.

In another instance, "Ms. Hess observed a federal detailee on the discharge team who was in a total panic because approximately 100 children were waiting for at least 12 hours in the discharge tent, unnecessarily. One child urinated on himself while waiting. Ultimately, very few, if any, children were discharged that day, and all were sent back to the tents."

Hess also claimed that the children experienced unsafe and unsanitary living conditions while at Fort Bliss.

There was a general lack of clothing, showers, and hygiene at the EIS. That led to many outbreaks of a range of illnesses including COVID-19, strep throat, scabies, lice, influenza, and chicken pox. For instance, 150 boys in Tent 8 became infected with COVID-19 in May, soon after Ms. Hess arrived. Ms. Hess encountered a child crying because he had not taken a shower in days," the letter stated.

The following allegations made by other whistleblowers were also included in the letter:

  • "Children held for weeks without basic needs such as clean underwear or bedding and without case management meetings to facilitate their release from HHS custody"
  • "Contractors with no experience or expertise in childcare regularly threatening children with deportation"
  • "Insufficient, and with rare exception, wholly unqualified mental health staff incapable of attending to children with demonstrable mental health needs"
  • "An unsafe environment for children including harmful noise levels, 24-hour lighting in sleeping areas, and sleeping arrangements that impeded supervision"
  • "A culture of secrecy lacking any method to address numerous concerns in which bullying, rioting, and sexual harassment of children went unaddressed."

For context, more than 10,300 migrant children were in HHS custody as of April 4, compared to a total of 22,557 children who were in HHS custody on April 29, 2021, according to data.

The Government Accountability Project wants to ensure that the issues the whistleblowers brought to light have been addressed because "there are indications that more children may soon be in custody at the EISs soon," the letter stated.

The Government Accountability Project expects the number of children in HHS custody to increase this year during the spring, based on prior years' experience, according to the letter.

Also, the end of Title 42 on May 23 is also expected to increase the number of asylum seekers at the border, multiple reports say.

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A HHS spokesperson sent CBS4 the following response:

It’s our legal responsibility to care for unaccompanied children while they are in our care. We act quickly to address any concerns and have proactively closed sites that didn’t meet our standards. It remains our policy to swiftly report any alleged instances of wrongdoing to the appropriate authorities. Currently, children spend, on average, only 14 days in care at the Emergency Intake Site at Fort Bliss and meet with a case manager weekly. We have over 80 mental health and behavioral counselors on site working with the children. We have increased case management services to unite children safely and expeditiously with family, while we continue to improve and streamline this process.

In July, HHS said it responded to the complaints but the Government Accountability Project said it is still not clear if HHS fixed the issue.

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CBS4 also reached out to El Paso Congresswoman Veronica Escobar's office, Fort Bliss , and the Office of refugees and resettlements for information. We will update you when we hear back.

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