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Migrant Child Detention

A young migrant waits for his turn to take a shower at the Donna Department of Homeland Security holding facility, the main detention center for unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley in Donna, Texas on March 30, 2021. (Photo: Dario Lopez-Mills/AFP via Getty Images)

Whistleblowers Allege Kids Mistreated by ServePro Contractors Hired to Oversee Detention Camp

"We are traumatizing these kids," one official allegedly admitted. "This is terrible. This is horrible. People in Washington know. But this is an emergency situation and mistakes are going to happen."

Brett Wilkins

Unaccompanied children held at an immigration detention camp in the Texas desert suffered substandard living conditions and mistreatment by contracted staff including employees of an emergency cleanup company, as well as neglect and indifference from Biden administration officials, according to a whistleblower complaint first reported Wednesday by NBC News' Julia Ainsley.

"The contractor providing direct supervision of the children in the dormitory tents—Servpro—is a fire and water damage repair company."
—Whistleblowers' complaint

The complaint (pdf) to Congress, filed by the Government Accountability Project on behalf of career civil servants Laurie Elkin and Justin Mulaire, alleges "gross mismanagement and specific endangerment to public health and safety at the Fort Bliss Emergency Intake Site (EIS) for unaccompanied children operated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)."

Elkin and Mulaire—who are both attorneys currently employed in the Chicago district office of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)— were on temporary volunteer assignment with HHS from May 12 to June 2, 2021 caring for unaccompanied migrant children in federal custody at Ft. Bliss, a large military base located in the desert outside El Paso, Texas.

The complaint notes that at the base, "thousands of children are housed for prolonged periods in enormous, undivided tents—perhaps the size of a football field."

Elkin and Mulaire, who were tasked with supervising children held in the tents—which each housed between 1,000 to 1,500 minors—believed conditions at the detention camp "were placing children at risk," and according to the complaint, both attorneys "witnessed numerous instances of gross mismanagement, causing harm to children's health and well-being."

The complaint states that "perhaps the single greatest problem observed by Ms. Elkin and Mr. Mulaire was the use of wholly unsuitable contract staff."

The pair "learned that the contractor providing direct supervision of the children in the dormitory tents—Servpro—is a fire and water damage repair company," it says. "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.'"

According to its website, "The Servpro Industries, LLC, franchise system is a national leader of fire, water, mold, and other specialty cleanup and restoration services."

"Youth care is not in its portfolio," the complaint states, adding that contracted staff at the detention facility told the whistleblowers that "they had received no training prior to beginning work and had little guidance about what their role was." 

"Many contract workers seemed to view their job more as crowd control than youth care," the document alleges. "While some individuals plainly meant well, other contract workers exhibited impatience with children and were plainly unsure of how to supervise them."

The complaint further alleges:

  • An inability to help children in distress due to the large number of both detained children and closely spaced bunk beds in the tents;
  • Intolerable noise, including contractors' use of loudspeakers, a bullhorn, and a siren to wake children early in the morning;
  • Odor and filth, including the stench of sewage, in tents;
  • Ubiquitous dust and sand;
  • Lack of clean clothes and bedding; and
  • Hostility, indifference, and resistance to detainees' needs and care.

According to the complaint, in one instance Elkin "discovered a girl in a bottom bunk who looked ghostly pale. The girl told Ms. Elkin that she had not had her period for months but was now bleeding profusely and did not feel well. Clearly, the girl needed medical attention."

"Elkin approached a contractor to request that the girl be taken to the medical tent," the document states. "The contractor responded by saying she was not allowed to take girls to the doctor. Ms. Elkin then brought the case to contractor's supervisor who questioned why and if the girl needed to see a doctor. Ultimately, but only because of Ms. Elkin's intervention, the girl received medical treatment."

Furthermore, the complaint alleges widespread case management failures, including numerous children who "seemed to have fallen through the cracks," resulting in serious processing delays and "unnecessary emotional distress."

Miscommunication and lack of coordination were allegedly rife at the facility:

Early one morning a girl in Ms. Elkin's tent was woken up and told that she was going home that morning. The girl, who had then been in the tent for 38 days, wept with joy and relief. She quickly changed into street clothes to look good and said her tearful goodbyes. She was then taken to the case management tent to wait for the bus with other children that were going home that day.

Ms. Elkin went to the case management tent to see the girl off. On the verge of leaving after more than seven weeks at the facility, the girl was suddenly pulled out of the bus line. She was told a "mistake" had been made and that she was not going home. The girl collapsed in uncontrollable tears.

This wasn't an isolated incident; according to the complaint, "47 additional children that very morning had also been told they were going home only to be pulled out of the bus line and sent back to their tents."

"Each day seemed to bring new examples of deficiencies in the care of the children and resulting risks to their health. Instances of gross mismanagement of the site were pervasive."
—David Seide and Dana Gold, whistleblowers' attorneys

Elkin says one Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) official at the base told her: "We are traumatizing these kids. This is terrible. This is horrible. People in Washington know. But this is an emergency situation and mistakes are going to happen."

The whistleblowers say they were told during orientation "that the primary means of providing 'feedback' about any problems they noticed was to send emails to a 'suggestion box' at an HHS.gov address," and that "they were also told not to provide such feedback during their first 10 days on the job."

"Such gag orders are illegal," the filing notes. "The 'anti-gag' provision of the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act... specifically states that gag orders cannot be imposed on federal employees unless they are explicitly told that such orders do not apply when employees exercise their whistleblower rights."

The whistleblowers made at least four complaints to HHS management regarding the aforementioned and other incidents. They say they were ignored, told to use the suggestion box, or that reporting multiple problems would likely be "perceived as a crying wolf situation."

"In sum, the time our clients spent at Fort Bliss was alarming," David Seide and Dana Gold, the attorneys representing Elkin and Mulaire, said in the complaint. "Each day seemed to bring new examples of deficiencies in the care of the children and resulting risks to their health. Instances of gross mismanagement of the site were pervasive."

Seide and Gold continued:

Having witnessed these things, as well as the despair of children who felt (often accurately) that they were being ignored or forgotten, our clients felt the need to speak out, yet were met with non-responsiveness at best and unlawful deterrence at worst. They volunteered for this detail as dedicated civil servants to further the mission of HHS and ORR to protect the well-being of the children at the Emergency Influx Sites. They are escalating these concerns now in service of that same mission.

While they are encouraged by reports that some conditions may have improved recently, including the numbers of children currently housed at Fort Bliss, many of the problems they witnessed will continue to harm the hundreds of children at the site if they are not addressed. Whatever one might think about immigration policy, the reality is that these children are here now and are in HHS's custody. HHS has a responsibility to make sure they are safe and treated humanely.

As Common Dreams reported earlier this year, the Biden administration's decision to detain migrant children at Ft. Bliss was condemned by immigrant and environmental justice advocates both for humanitarian reasons and due to the presence of toxic hazards from past military operations.

Advocates have also decried the administration's skyrocketing detention and expulsion of migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers—among them many children—including what Amnesty International last month called the "dangerous and unconscionable" forced removal of thousands of unaccompanied minors without properly ensuring their safety.


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