Contractor hired to care for migrant children has no experience in child care, whistleblowers say

Contractor hired to care for migrant children has no experience in child care, whistleblowers say
© Customs and Border Protection

Contractors in charge of migrant children housed at a facility in Fort Bliss, Texas, were trained to assist with disaster recovery but had few Spanish skills and little ability to care for minors, two federal employees detailed to the border said in a whistleblower complaint filed Wednesday.

The complaint describes a chaotic situation for the nearly 5,000 children housed in tents at the facility in May, with federal employees from across the bureaucracy there for a few weeks at a time with “wholly unsuitable contract staff” and who were “not permitted to interact with the children unless a child specifically approached them.”

Laurie Elkin and Justin Mulaire, employees with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Chicago, volunteered for a 30-day detail to the facility, which was overseen by Servpro, a “fire and water cleanup and restoration” business.

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“Many contract workers seemed to view their job more as crowd control than youth care. While some individuals plainly meant well, other contract workers exhibited impatience with children and were plainly unsure of how to supervise them,” the two detailed in their complaint, filed by the Government Accountability Project.

“Youth care is not in its portfolio.”

The Servpro contract was first reported by the El Paso Times in June.

The complaint details how stacks of bunk beds made it difficult to keep a line of sight on all children, many of whom were visibly distressed.

The Servpro contractors also used loud music to wake the children each day, with some bunks just 10 feet from the giant speakers.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which oversees children in government custody, apparently did not respond to the duo's complaints.

“For kids who are depressed or anxious, being in a nightclub‐like environment may not be the best idea,” Mulaire wrote to the HHS suggestion email box on May 21.

The federal employees who volunteered to be on site also faced confusion over the facility's operations. The agency made the request for staff from across the government to assist at the border, providing a few days training in Dallas before sending them to various facilities.

At Fort Bliss, HHS did not appear “to play any direct role in running the tents. Federal detailees reported to tent leads, who themselves were recently arrived federal detailees,” the complaint alleges.

HHS did not immediately responded to request for comment. Servpro said it could not comment on the specific claims, as the contract was entered into by one of its franchises.

“This youth care services work – which was entered into without our knowledge – involved an independently owned and operated SERVPRO franchise. Servpro Industries is a franchisor and does not provide or contract to provide any direct services to customers,” the company said in a statement. 

“When we became aware of this issue, we immediately advised the franchise operator that these are not approved SERVPRO service offerings. The franchise operator is no longer providing these services through the SERVPRO franchise.”

The complaint also said contractors on site repeatedly fought attempts to help children at the facility access medical care.

Elkin said she had to push for medical care for a child who was having a panic attack and another girl who “had not had her period for months but was now bleeding profusely.”

“Each discovered multiple children who reported medical problems — ranging from unexplained pain to profuse bleeding. They also discovered children who were deeply upset and anxious about their situation and wanted to talk to a counselor. These were not children who were likely to get up out of bed and seek assistance from an adult," the complaint read.

“Housing children who are dislocated and in distress in groups numbering in the hundreds all but ensures that many will continue to be in distress. Not being within the line of sight of adults also increases the risk that children with medical, mental health, or other needs will simply go unnoticed in these vast, airplane hangar-sized tents,” the complaint continues.

Elkin and Mulaires’s account squares with other earlier complaints of children being housed in dirty and cramped conditions, with dirty bedding and a lack of access to a clean change of clothes, in some cases leaving children hesitant to bathe or participate in the few activities offered to them. 

“Although many children were housed in these tents for as long as two months (or more), it appeared their bedding was never washed; many beds were visibly dirty. The children also reported having insufficient clean underwear and socks, which in turn made them reluctant to exercise,” they said.

“The children’s day was largely unstructured. During the day, they were typically either sitting or lying in their beds or milling around with relatively few activities available to them,” they added.