The private contractor managing the Fort Bliss prison camp near El Paso, Texas, is a fire and water damage repair company with absolutely zero experience in child welfare, two federal workers who volunteered there have revealed in a shocking whistleblower report. The document, released by a whistleblower advocacy organization, comes just weeks after nearly 20 children revealed disturbing conditions at the unlicensed camp.
Government Accountability Project (GAP) said that while whistleblowers were at the camp, “they were eyewitnesses to daily instances of gross mismanagement specifically endangering public health and safety,” including Servpro staff “routinely” waking up children by blasting loud music. The report said that if kids weren’t getting up quickly enough, staff would blast a bullhorn siren at them. But while both reported what they saw to both Health and Human Services (HHS) management and its watchdog, “no remedial action was taken while they were at Fort Bliss.”
Laurie Elkin and Justin Mulaire, both attorneys who volunteered at the site from mid-May to the beginning of June, said in the report that crowded conditions, “combined with the vast size of the tents, put at-risk children at even greater risk.” Sandstorms in the region naturally resulted in filthy conditions, yet the whistleblowers said children were not regularly provided with clean bedding or clothing. “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.”
Like noted in court testimonials submitted by 17 children last month, children would go lengthy times without being able to speak with an adult. “Ms. Elkin and Mr. Mulaire witnessed no communication between case managers and children under their care for sometimes weeks at a time,” GAP said. “Many children’s cases slipped through the cracks causing unnecessary, additional traumatization.” But the group said that “[p]erhaps the single greatest problem observed by Ms. Elkin and Mr. Mulaire was the use of wholly unsuitable contract staff.”
The report said that the two “learned that the contractor providing direct supervision of the children in the dormitory tents—Servpro—is a fire and water damage repair company.” It appears most of the staff also didn’t know Spanish or any indigenous languages spoken by the children. “Many of the Servpro staff’s t-shirts bore the Servpro corporate logo found on the internet, with some including the corporate logo: ‘As if it never happened,’” the report continued. Good when it comes to fire and water damage repair, absolutely terrifying when it comes to children.
“Problematic contractor guidelines exacerbated this situation,” the report continued. “Contractors told Ms. Elkin and Mr. Mulaire that they were not permitted to interact with the children unless a child specifically approached them. Many children in a state of distress, suffering with depression, anxiety or more, are less likely to initiate such an interaction and seek out an adult for help.” The report said that even when kids did reach out, “Ms. Elkin and Mr. Mulaire report that contractors were often of little help.” Probably because the company was wholly unfit to provide specialized care.
Following the report, advocates with the #WelcomeWithDignity campaign said the abuses continued to confirm that kids don’t belong in detention. “This terrible situation at Ft. Bliss should never have happened,” said Denise Bell, a researcher for Refugee and Migrant Rights at Amnesty International USA. “The administration has every opportunity to ensure it is not repeated by moving to close these emergency facilities as quickly as possible and immediately implementing long-overdue reforms so that such emergency facilities are never needed.”
Elkin and Mulaire said that “[a]fter witnessing the dire conditions at Fort Bliss, we feel it is our obligation to speak out. Regardless of one’s views about immigration policy, the reality is that these unaccompanied children are here now and are in U.S. custody. HHS must act now to ensure the children are treated in a safe and humane manner.” While the administration has announced its shutting down six temporary camps by August, Fort Bliss is not among them. Following an urgent visit by HHS Sec. Xavier Becerra last month, officials said that 790 boys were still being held at the camp, down from a high of 4,800 children in May.
“A spokeswoman for Servpro Industries said that the contract was entered into by a franchise holder without the company's knowledge,” NBC News reported. That “explanation” just makes this whole thing worse. “This was preventable, and the U.S. must act urgently to uphold the best interests of children,” Bell continued in the statement. “That starts with ensuring children are safely with their families and approved sponsors must [move] faster, and re-orienting the model of care altogether so that children are living with family and caretakers rather than in government custody at all.”