Whistleblowers: Unaccompanied minors being poorly cared for by inexperienced contractors at Fort Bliss

(U.S. Department of Health and Human Services via AP)

The emergency influx shelter at Fort Bliss army base has been the subject of complaints of poor conditions for the unaccompanied minor migrants it houses. A whistleblower complaint has been filed that accuses the Health and Human Services Department of contracting a Servpro Industries franchise holder to provide direct supervision of the children at Fort Bliss. The company has no experience in providing such service and it is still not clear how this happened.

Servpro Industries, a Tennessee-based company, is a water-and-fire damage repair contractor. It specializes in clean-up. On Wednesday, a complaint was filed by two lawyers who turned into whistleblowers over the poor conditions at the shelter. Laurie Elkin and Justin Mulaire worked at the Fort Bliss shelter from mid-May to early June. They say the children were not given enough clean underwear and had to sleep in tents that “were dirty and often had a foul odor”, often smelling of sewage.

“After 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,” Elkin and Mulaire said in a joint statement Wednesday.

The contractor’s staff told the whistleblowers “that they had received no training prior to beginning work and had little guidance about what their role was,” the whistleblowers said. They also said the contractors “seemed to view their job more as crowd control than youth care,” describing instances in which contractors woke children up at 6 a.m. with a bullhorn.

If problems in the shelter at Fort Bliss sounds familiar, it’s because it has been written about here before this story. Last month’s story was particularly disturbing. It centered around reports of panic attacks and attempts at suicide by the teens being housed there. After that story became publicized, HHS Secretary Beccera finally paid the shelter a visit.

In late spring, the shelter housed about 5,000 children. That number has been reduced now to about 1,600, as of late June. The two whistleblowers said they raised concerns while they were working at the shelter but no action was taken. A spokesperson for Servpro said that a contract was entered into without the company’s knowledge. Servpro has more than 1,700 franchisees.

Kim Brooks, a spokesperson for Servpro, said that the youth care services were entered into “without our knowledge” by an independently owned and operated Servpro franchise and that franchise is no longer providing services to the shelter.

“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,” Brooks said in a statement.

Servpro hasn’t provided the name of the franchise and the whistleblowers are not aware of which franchise held the contract. They did say that the workers wore Servpro uniforms, complete with the motto, “Like it never even happened.”

The two lawyers turned whistleblowers are career federal employees, currently employed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Chicago. They temporarily worked at the Fort Bliss shelter in response to Biden’s plea for federal workers to volunteer at shelters to help with his border crisis.

Elkin and Mulaire are represented by the Government Accountability Project, which filed the complaint on their behalf. The whistleblowers’ attorneys said that “the conditions they witnessed caused physical, mental and emotional harm affecting dozens of children” and that management at Fort Bliss ignored their concerns. The complaint does not allege illegal behavior, but rather gross mismanagement and a threat to public health and safety.

The complaint alleges that the Servpro supervisors who oversaw large tents filled with up to 1,500 children didn’t interact with the children but stood quietly watching them. They saw the job more as crowd control then caring for teenagers. The ratio was usually 1 to 6, supervisor to children. They didn’t interact with the teens unless they specifically approached a supervisor. The complaint also says that the children have unstructured days where they pass the time sitting or lying in their beds or milling around with few activities available to them. The children are not regularly given clean sheets or clothes.

Elkin and Mulaire had few places to address their concerns. They were told at orientation by U.S. Public Health Serivce workers to not make complaints for the first 10 days they were there. After that they were told to only send complaints to a suggestions email address. HHS did not comment on how a Servpro franchise got the contract in the first place.

“We take our humanitarian mission and the well-being of children in our care seriously,” said an HHS spokesperson in a statement. “HHS has taken action to improve the conditions at Fort Bliss and at all Emergency Intake Sites. Children are receiving nutritionally appropriate meals and there are now 60 mental health professionals on site at Fort Bliss and counselors at all other emergency intake sites.”

Remember all the drama from those who criticized the ‘kids in cages’ during the Trump administration? Where are they now that Joe Biden is keeping them in dusty, dirty tents in West Texas? This story of handing out an HHS contract to a franchise that had absolutely no experience or training for such a responsibility is just the latest evidence that Team Biden is in way over their heads and not competent to handle the situation. Joe Biden created this border crisis of epic proportions, now he just lets the kids twist in the wind while he continues to deny there is even a problem.