After two federal workers came forward as whistleblowers filing a complaint with Congress over how unaccompanied minors are being treated at a temporary facility at Fort Bliss, audio recordings of conversations have been released and published by NBC News.
Fort Bliss, in El Paso, Texas, and part of the largest Department of Defense “controlled airspace” in the world, is where unaccompanied minor children have been held since the spring under the oversight of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. HHS contracted with multiple groups to provide a range of services.
One contractor, Servpro, which specializes in water cleanup after fires and storm disasters with no public record related to dealing with child welfare, was contracted to care for nearly 5,000 children housed at Fort Bliss in May.
With the potential to house as many as 10,000 children, the Fort Bliss site became the largest emergency intake site HHS opened and was plagued by multiple allegations of “poor, unsanitary and otherwise inadequate conditions.”
In response to the allegations, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra visited the facility, and local residents demanded that it be shut down. Becerra said his administration had made progress since he was confirmed to his post in mid-March. By late June, Fort Bliss held fewer than 800 children, he said.
Becerra maintains that HHS takes “every allegation of wrongdoing seriously. Every emergency intake site we have launched, we started from scratch. We constantly work to improve the conditions and services required to care for children in these challenging shelter settings.”
But an audio recording from a May training meeting sheds light on how allegations of misconduct were handled two months after Becerra took office.
“We have already caught staff with minors inappropriately. Is that OK with you guys?” according to an audio recording of a federal contractor speaking at the meeting.
The staffers replied, “No!” The female contractor replied, “I hope not.”
“If you catch them, especially if it’s a staff member, you separate that minor from that person immediately,” she said. However, she did not instruct staff to report the incident to supervisors.
At the time of the recording, there were 3,000 minors being held there.
The contractor mentions incidents of child abuse, saying, “I know there have been a lot of complaints from minors about staff members waking them up in the morning. We’ve got some staff members that are picking up and shaking the bed to wake up the minor. Or they’re bouncing them on the bed. They think they’re being playful, but that constitutes child abuse. I want you guys to know that.”
The recording was released after two whistleblowers, Arthur Pearlstein and Lauren Reinhold, detailed their concerns in a report filed with Congress by the Government Accountability Project.
“There were so many of them that complained that they had no underwear or one pair with nothing to change into,” Pearlstein told NBC News. “I began to ask some of the management officials, ‘Well, can’t a federal employee that has a purchase card just go to Walmart or Costco?'”
He says he was told, “No, the contractor needs to wait for it.”
In another meeting with employees, a doctor working for the U.S. Public Health Service wouldn’t provide COVID-19 data, according to audio obtained by NBC News.
“I can’t give you daily numbers and breakouts and graphs and things like that,” he said. “Assume everyone has Covid, act appropriately. … Sorry, it’s not a great answer.”
In responding to reporting by NBC News on the allegations, an HHS spokesperson said the children “meet with a case manager weekly and we have close to 60 mental health and behavioral counselors on site working with the children. It remains our policy to swiftly report any alleged instances of wrongdoing to the appropriate authorities.”
Fort Bliss is not the only facility plagued by reports of abuse. In April, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott demanded that the Biden administration shut down a federally run facility in San Antonio after hearing of allegations of child abuse.
He included a memo from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission that summarize allegations of sexual assault, bullying, understaffing, and disregard for COVID-19 protocols within the facility.
“The State of Texas previously warned about overcrowded conditions at these facilities, and now those conditions have led to allegations of child abuse and neglect,” Abbott said at the time. “Our repeated warnings and questions have gone ignored by President Biden, yourself, and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas. In your role as Border Czar, you have a duty to these children and the American people to act immediately. I implore you to act immediately to protect these children, secure the border, and end this crisis.”
At the time, roughly 1,370 minors were being held in the Freeman Coliseum in San Antonio.
Abbott still has not received an answer from the Biden administration, which he maintains “is presiding over the abuse of children.”