In 2021, WNN reported on multiple whistleblower complaints regarding the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Emergency Intake Site (EIS) at Fort Bliss, a military base outside of El Paso, Texas, that was set up in 2018 to house immigrant children. Now, a report by HHS’ Office of Inspector General (OIG) highlights staff allegations that there was a strong fear of whistleblower reprisal among workers at the facility, among other issues.
Background: Numerous Whistleblowers Allege Abuse and Mismanagement at Fort Bliss
According to prior WNN reporting, HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) set up the Fort Bliss site “to care for 20,000 children at one time.” Two whistleblowers, Laurie Elkin and Justin Mulaire, responded to a call for federal employees to temporarily work at the site and were assigned to begin work on May 12, 2021. In a July 7, 2021 letter to Congress, Elkin and Mulaire alleged that there was widespread mismanagement, extreme harm to children’s health and wellbeing, and egregious flaws in the case management system.
These complaints and more were echoed in subsequent whistleblower complaints: Arthur Pearlstein and Lauren Reinhold joined Elkin and Mulaire in their complaints about conduct and management at Fort Bliss in a July 28, 2021 letter to Congress. “Pearlstein and Reinhold, who worked at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service and the Social Security Administration, respectively, both served as volunteer detailees at Fort Bliss,” WNN reported at the time. In their letter, Pearlstein and Reinhold alleged that there was “significant waste, fraud, and abuse” at Fort Bliss, also detailing horrific treatment towards the children being housed there. Efforts to make change at the facility were hard-fought: they brought up issues like “sexual harassment by construction workers towards girls at the facility,” but managers “resisted taking their complaints.”
Pearlstein and Reinhold’s letter brought up the issue of the two contractors tasked with running the site, alleging that both contractors at Fort Bliss seemed to have no childcare experience. This was a complaint also brought up in Elkin and Mulaire’s complaint. Additionally, Pearlstein and Reinhold alleged that “[t]he contractors ignored or rejected most detailee concerns.”
On September 8, 2021, an anonymous whistleblower sent a letter to Congress detailing their experiences at Fort Bliss and alleging that there was “gross mismanagement” at the facility. Their allegations are in line with the previous whistleblowers’ complaints of despicable mistreatment of children, understaffing and unqualified staff, and a lack of accountability and oversight.
HHS OIG Study Findings
Issues with Case Management
The HHS OIG report details information from “interviews with 66 ORR and facility staff” and also “analyzed HHS documents related to case management at ORR facilities.” The report states that OIG visited the Fort Bliss site in June 2021 and mentions the high level of concern from staff, advocates, and members of Congress regarding “inadequate case management…and its adverse effect on children’s well-being and their safe and timely release to sponsors.” The report points to “ORR-wide approaches that hindered case management across all ORR facilities” as a hindrance “for children’s safe and timely release” from Fort Bliss.
Each of the three letters from Fort Bliss whistleblowers highlighted issues in case management for the children housed at the facility. Elkin and Mulaire’s letter alleged that “[t]here was no official mechanism in the dormitories for children to report that their case had seemed to have fallen through the cracks, or to communicate relevant information they may have learned from a phone call to their family. They simply had to wait, sometimes for weeks, for a case worker to contact them.” Additionally, “[b]oth whistleblowers came across multiple children who said they had not met with their case worker ‘in weeks.’”
After Mulaire tried to help a young boy see his case worker whom he had not seen for 27 days, he was told by the case management worker that the boy had “been forgotten,” previous WNN reporting states. An ORR staffer told Elkin, “We are traumatizing these kids. This is terrible. This is horrible.” Similarly, Pearlstein and Reinhold “also encountered several children who had not spoken to their case managers in months or had never even been assigned a case manager.”
To assess whether there were case management issues at Fort Bliss, OIG conducted interviews “with ORR staff and facility staff.” The report mentions that “OIG took several steps to protect the identities of the individuals” who were interviewed, “including removing names and other identifying information from interview excerpts.” OIG found that “ORR’s rapid staffing of the ORR EIS at Fort Bliss left inexperienced and untrained case managers unprepared to provide case management for children’s safe and timely release to sponsors.” The report includes quotes from anonymous workers at the facility commenting on the case management staff and their ineptitude. This section of the report points to the need for rapid staffing as a reason for many inexperienced case management workers at Fort Bliss.
Additionally, the report highlights the harm to children that occurred because of ORR’s lack of guidance and training for case management workers. The section details some of the children’s mental health crises as fears of being forgotten by the system were compounded by long stretches of not meeting with a case manager. Large caseloads were also an issue: one case manager said that the job was “overwhelming at the beginning. At one point, I was up to 25 kids.” The report also states that “ORR issued field guidance that removed certain steps of the sponsor screening process across ORR facilities, potentially increasing children’s risk of release to unsafe sponsors.”
Possible Whistleblower Chilling
OIG reports: “Some staff who raised concerns about case management and children’s safety allegedly experienced potential retaliation by ORR and field leadership in the form of reassignment or dismissal.” Two staff members who were interviewed “reported experiencing potential retaliatory actions from their supervisors after raising concerns about case management and children’s safety.” An ORR leader is quoted in the report as saying, “I think [staff] have learned that if you ask questions…you’re going to be pushed aside. Either your role is going to be diminished or you’re going to be pushed out of ORR.”
Other interviewees said that they had “secondhand knowledge of staff who were allegedly dismissed or reassigned after reporting concerns.” OIG received three reports of potential retaliation for workers who were raising issues about the case management at Fort Bliss or, in one case, trying to intervene in a child’s case to help them be reunified with a sponsor.
The report discusses the issue of whistleblower chilling, or a chilling effect on possible whistleblowers, because of treatment of individuals who speak up. Some staff members at Fort Bliss “reported that they were hesitant to raise concerns about case management and children’s safety due to the fear of retaliation by ORR and facility leadership.” OIG reports, “In some cases, the reported actions of ORR and facility leadership may have risen to the level of whistleblower chilling,” something that the report says “obstructs the mission of HHS-OIG to investigate allegations of fraud, waste, and abuse.”
Some staff members expressed “that they felt generally discouraged from raising concerns.” One employee at the facility said, “They did everything possible to discourage people from discussing what was going on.”
As a response to the reports of possible whistleblower retaliation, OIG provided employees and leadership of HHS’ Administration for Children and Families, which manages the Unaccompanied Children Program, “with materials and training intended to educate them on the appropriate handling of protected disclosures and whistleblower rights available to Federal employees. OIG issued a memo to ACF in November 2021 “that noted whistleblower protection concerns in unaccompanied children operations.” This led HHS and ACF to work with the HHS-OIG Whistleblower Protection Coordinator, who was to “provide ACF staff with whistleblower protection training.” ACF has hosted two trainings focusing on whistleblowers, one in March and one in July.
The report provides a series of recommendations for ACF, including developing processes to hire qualified case managers when large numbers of unaccompanied children enter the U.S., properly training case managers, and creating “an emergency policy development protocol that provides for adequate input from staff with expertise in child welfare when ORR develops field guidance during an influx” of unaccompanied children.
OIG recommends that employees of ORR “participate in training aimed at ensuring that staff are not discouraged from, or retaliated against for, reporting concerns about children’s safety and the quality of services they receive at ORR facilities.” One specific part of this training OIG mentions is making “Whistleblower 101” training mandatory for ACF employees and ORR leadership. “Additionally, ACF should inform and stress to its contractors and recipients that their employees are also covered by whistleblower protections, and it is their responsibility to convey those protections to their subcontractors and subrecipients,” the report states.
The end of the report features ACF’s responses to OIG’s recommendations: ACF makes several statements about its plans to implement and address the recommendations. “ACF pledged to amend ORR’s template cooperative agreement to more specifically explain whistleblower policy and training as well as HHS-OIG reporting and protections, as appropriate,” OIG reports. ACF also “described the optional training series it conducted in conjunction with HHS-OIG from March through July 2022, as well as a mandatory course for supervisors and managers.” OIG commented, “We appreciate ACF’s collaboration with HHS-OIG on this matter, and encourage ACF to mandate “Whistleblower 101” training for all employees—not just supervisors and managers.”