Per the Government Accountability Project (GAP), career federal workers and Fort Bliss volunteers Arthur Pearlstein and Lauren Reinhold “were eyewitnesses to daily instances of gross mismanagement specifically endangering public health and safety,” including “poor planning and miscommunication endangering and harming the children due to failures in case management and health care,” “terrible conditions in the airplane-hangar sized dormitory tents housing hundreds of children for weeks or months on end,” and orders to shut up about all of the above.
The whistleblowers said management emphasized “secrecy and only ‘good news stories, including efforts to keep under wraps that COVID was widespread among children and employees.’” NBC News reported that whistleblowers said that “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.”
Per the whistleblower report, the contractors hired to “manage” the camp—Servpro, Chenega Corporation and Rapid Deployment Inc.—were cumulatively paid close to $1 billion in federal agreements. Per the first whistleblower report filed by GAP last month, two other federal volunteers, Laurie Elkin and Justin Mulaire, said they “learned that the contractor providing direct supervision of the children in the dormitory tents—Servpro—is a fire and water damage repair company.” Federal money made from a camp for children: lots. Prior experience in child welfare: none.
“I am speaking out in the interest of accountability and with the hope that the many avoidable failures in the program at Fort Bliss will not be repeated,” Pearlstein said. “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.” In her statement, Reinhold said that while she was “pleased that HHS recruited Federal employees to assist with the influx of unaccompanied children crossing the border, I feel our talents and input were underutilized.”
“It is my hope that [the Office of Refugee Resettlement] 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 continued. During a press briefing late last week, Principal Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said she didn’t know if the president was aware of this new whistleblower report, but said, “As you could imagine, the safety of migrants, the safety of young—of young people is incredibly important to us since they are in our care, as you can imagine.”
HHS Sec. Xavier Becerra visited Fort Bliss in late June, following court testimonials from 17 children who had been held at the camp. Kids there “described crowded living conditions, spoiled food, lack of clean clothes, and struggles with depression,” Reuters reported. “A lot of the girls here cry a lot,” one 17-year-old girl said in the report. Noted attorney Carlos Holguín told CBS News some kids “were close to their breaking points.” In a testament as to how they’d gotten to that point, NBC News reports that Pearlstein and Reinhold “said the contractors gave children false hopes of reuniting with family members only to pull them back at the last minute, even taking children out of lines for buses and off airplanes before takeoff.”
Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva called for an independent investigation last month, writing that “[c]hildren do not belong in detention, and I’ve long advocated for the closure of these types of facilities.” While the Biden administration has been shutting down a number of these so-called emergency facilities, Fort Bliss remains open for now.
“Because I’ve been here so long, I’ve been getting a lot of anxiety, and my blood pressure has gone up,” a second 17-year-old girl said in documents in June. “I’ve never had that problem before. My blood pressure makes me dizzy and gives me a headache. One time about a month ago I fainted because of my anxiety.” She said that she’d been held in Customs and Border Protection custody for 11 days (nearly four times the legal limit) before being sent to Fort Bliss. At the time of her testimony, she’d been at the camp for two months. She said she “used to be able to cope with my anxiety and breathe through it, but now I feel like I’ve given up. I feel like I’ll never get out of here.”