On September 8, a whistleblower sent a letter to Congress alleging “gross mismanagement” at three U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) sites that both housed and currently house unaccompanied migrant children. This is the third whistleblower complaint about Fort Bliss, an Emergency Intake Site (EIS) in Texas, that advocacy group the Government Accountability Project (GAP) has filed on behalf of a whistleblower.
EISs are run by the HHS Administration for Children and Families (ACF) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). The whistleblower in this complaint is a career federal civil servant who “served as a volunteer detailee between April and May 2021 at three EISs.” The whistleblower’s identity was not disclosed and wants to remain anonymous, unlike the other two complaints GAP filed in early and late July, in which the whistleblowers’ names were used.
This complaint is addressed to the U.S. House of Representatives Committees on Energy and Commerce and Government Oversight, as well as the U.S. Senate Committees on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions and Homeland Security & Government Affairs. It is also addressed to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel and HHS’ Office of Inspector General (OIG).
The complaint states that throughout the whistleblower’s time at three EISs, they “witnessed egregious violations of laws, rules, and regulations; gross mismanagement; gross waste of funds; abuses of authority; and numerous substantial and specific dangers to public health and safety resulting in the systemic abuse, neglect, and harm to the unaccompanied children in HHS custody.”
The whistleblower volunteers at two other EISs in Houston, Texas and Erie, Pennsylvania before arriving at the Fort Bliss EIS in Texas. The complaint states that they witnessed “the same kinds of gross mismanagement and chaos harming children and staff” that they later saw at Fort Bliss. The whistleblower’s allegations detail an extreme lack of organization and confusion about the chain of command and leadership at the sites that spanned the three EIS sites at which the whistleblower was stationed.
Whistleblower Allegations at Three EISs
At a temporary EIS in Houston, the whistleblower says that in a building housing 400-500 girls, children were afforded little privacy. The whistleblower also claims that their first assignment at the Houston site was to “shred boxes of documents on site, without explanation.”
When the temporary Houston EIS was shut down (to the surprise of the contactor tasked with running the site), the whistleblower was moved to an EIS in Erie, Pennsylvania. This site “was closed down during the last week of April after being open for less than three weeks,” which was within the week that the whistleblower arrived, according to the letter. The whistleblower “was told that there were dozens of health and safety violations and that the facility did not meet state and local child and adult health and safety requirements.”
At the Erie EIS, the whistleblower “learned that many children suffered dehydration, often developed gastrointestinal issues, and refused to eat the food provided because it was unpalatable and/or unfamiliar.” The whistleblower also states that COVID was a “severe problem” at this site: a floor in the facility was designated for children who tested positive for COVID, but “it was understaffed and had numerous health safety violations including a gas leak.” Social distancing guidelines were also not upheld. Children’s privacy was also violated in horrific ways: in one instance, children were sent to the shower room by gender to address the “rampant” lice crisis, and a staff member of the opposite gender of the one group of children “attempted to remain in the shower room” and later “participated in the lice removal process within a few feet” of young girls who were showering.
According to the complaint, EIS management ignored the whistleblower’s “repeated complaints,” and there “was no formalized process for reporting complaints and no chain of command for elevating concerns.”
Whistleblower’s Experience at Fort Bliss
After the Erie location closed down, the whistleblower was reassigned to the Fort Bliss EIS in late April. The whistleblower “learned that many staffers on the mental health team were unqualified,” and the two qualified mental health detailees were “marginalized and demeaned by managers.” Other organizational and staffing issues plagued both the mental health team and the site overall: “Decisions were ad hoc, not in writing, made at the last possible moment, and reversed without explanation. There was no accountability or oversight.”
The letter then breaks down issues and events contained in “emails sent to multiple Fort Bliss managers summarizing disturbing information reported by children and staff.” The whistleblower obtained these emails from May 1 through May 6, and the complaint states that the issues mentioned in the emails “were never remedied” during the whistleblower’s time at Fort Bliss.
Some of the horrific notes in the emails that the whistleblower obtained include children being burned with “scalding water,” a girl having her blood drawn “without communication,” and a note that “Children have burnt and blistered their skin from ‘skin lightening’ lotion provided to them rather than a safe moisturizing lotion.” Numerous claims surround further organizational issues at the EIS, including “backlogs at several tents during the check in/check out process which is preventing them from going to the bathroom or leaving the tent,” confusion over federal versus contractor “roles and responsibilities and the various oversight mechanisms and checks and balances in place,” and “[i]nadequate and inappropriate clothing provided to the children.”
More abusive situations are mentioned in the emails, including claims that staffers at the EIS “regularly threaten children with deportation” and a staffer who “routinely discourages the children from filing complaints and threatens them with deportation.” A snippet of a May 5 email contains concerns from “seasoned federal employees who are fearful about retaliation for raising their concerns about their experience at Fort Bliss.” Additionally, in line with the previous whistleblower complaints about Fort Bliss, the emails describe issues with children being “lost” in the system and having little contact with case workers.
GAP concludes the letter by stating that these emails display “violations of fundamental human rights” and that the problems this whistleblower is alleging are not new but clearly have not been fixed. “We ask you to continue to investigate, hold accountable those responsible and act to ensure that this mess does not happen the next time the government uses Fort Bliss or the other EISs,” David Seide of GAP writes.
As reported in a previous WNN article, the HHS OIG Twitter account made a tweet on August 2 announcing that it would be looking into “case management challenges at Fort Bliss, Texas that may have impeded the safe and timely release of children to sponsors.” The tweet links to a page on the HHS OIG website entitled “Reported Experiences of Staff at Fort Bliss Emergency Intake Site” and states that “This review will analyze interviews and on-site observations regarding case management challenges at Fort Bliss that may have impeded the safe and timely release of children to sponsors. This oversight will help ensure that Fort Bliss and other EISs provide adequate case management services.” According to a table on the bottom of the webpage, the report, numbered OEI-07-21-00251, is expected to be issued in fiscal year 2021.
No updates to the page have been made as of the time of reporting.