US used contractors with no child care experience to run migrant facilities: whistleblowers

US used contractors with no child care experience to run migrant facilities: whistleblowers
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More federal employees are stepping forward to complain about treatment of unaccompanied minors at a facility in Fort Bliss, Texas, after the government allegedly contracted with several companies with no experience caring for children.

The complaint follows a similar one filed earlier this month that the government had contracted with Servpro, a “fire and water cleanup and restoration” business to help run a facility managing care for some 5,000 unaccompanied migrant children.

In a complaint filed Wednesday, two career federal employees who volunteered for detail in Texas said the government also contracted with Rapid Deployment Inc., a “turnkey base camp support” company assisting with conflicts and disasters, and Chenega, an Alaska Native corporation that also offers base operations assistance.

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Arthur Pearlstein, who works for the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, and Lauren Reinhold, a lawyer with the Social Security Administration, outlined numerous problems at the tent facility, from a lack of clean underwear and socks for children to widespread COVID-19 infections.

“It was not clear which contractor (Chenega or Servpro) was less suited to the work — it appears neither had experience with it, nor did they perform competently or appropriately. Contractor employees told detailees that to get their jobs, they did nothing more than submit basic employment applications. There was no follow up or vetting process, no interviews or even phone calls prior to being offered their jobs and asked when they could start,” the two detailed in their complaint, filed by the Government Accountability Project.

Neither of the two contractors responded to request for comment from The Hill. 

“Adequate masks were not consistently provided to children, nor was their use consistently enforced. Every effort was made to downplay the degree of COVID infection at the site, and the size of the outbreak was deliberately kept under wraps,” the complaint states, adding that several children had to be hospitalized.

At a town hall meeting with detailees, one senior U.S. Public Health Service manager wouldn’t give out details on the number of infections, the whistleblowers said, telling them “if that graph [of infections] is going to The Washington Post every day, it's the only thing we'll be dealing with and politics will take over, perception will take over, and we're about reality, not perception.”

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In another case, a manager tried to downplay the spread of lice inside the facility.

“When it was pointed out that the spread of lice was so serious that a girls’ tent with hundreds of occupants was on lockdown due to lice, the manager’s flippant remark was that girls tend to have long hair and so obviously they would be more subject to getting lice,” the two detailed in the complaint.

The two said that federal employees also ultimately reached into their own pockets to try and cover a lack of supplies for children after facility managers rejected pleas to buy supplies from a nearby Walmart and Costco.

“Notwithstanding the dismissive attitudes of federal management and private contractors, a great many federal detailees out of their own pockets collectively spent thousands of dollars on supplies for the children,” the complaint states, adding that “other detailees contributed far more, some individually into the thousands.”

While unaccompanied children are in government custody, the U.S. is supposed to locate family members or sponsors that can care for them while they resolve their immigration status.

But the whistleblowers said delays in those processes left children unsettled, with some children even trying to escape the facility.

“A great many had not spoken to their case managers in over a month. Some were not told they had been assigned a case manager at all, even after many weeks. Most had no information about the progress of their placement with sponsors,” they wrote.

“The Fort Bliss children did not and could not trust that they were safe, that their basic needs would be met, or that their sponsorship/placement cases were being timely processed. The most frequent complaint heard from children was that they were in a state of total uncertainty and anxiety, with no idea of what to expect next."