Whistleblowers detail poor hygiene for migrant kids at Texas site

Contractors seemed to view job “more as crowd control than youth care”

Customs and Border Protection officers patrol the Rio Grande Valley sector of the Texas border in 2019. (Jinitzail Hernández/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Customs and Border Protection officers patrol the Rio Grande Valley sector of the Texas border in 2019. (Jinitzail Hernández/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 7, 2021 at 2:25pm

The Department of Health and Human Services used a water-and-fire damage repair contractor with no training to supervise migrant children at a Texas emergency shelter, two whistleblowers stationed at the facility in the spring alleged Wednesday.

ServPro Industries, a Tennessee-based company specializing in water and fire damage cleanup, was responsible for direct supervision of unaccompanied migrant children held at the emergency influx shelter at the Fort Bliss army base, despite having no expertise in youth services, according to the disclosure sent to Congress.

The whistleblowers, two lawyers named Laurie Elkin and Justin Mulaire who worked at the shelter from mid-May to early June, said children were not given enough clean underwear and were forced to sleep in tents that “were dirty and often had a foul odor,” at times 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.

The disclosure, sent to various congressional committees and to the HHS inspector general, describes poor and unsanitary conditions at the influx facility, which in late spring had nearly 5,000 children in custody.

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.

The whistleblowers also said children were not given prompt medical care when experiencing health crises, including one girl who had a panic attack after learning that her old sister was dying and another who, after not receiving her period for months, began bleeding profusely.

The two said they raised concerns while working at the facility, but no action was taken.   

The allegations are not the first to sound the alarm on conditions at the Fort Bliss facility, one of several emergency shelters the Biden administration scrambled to open to hold high numbers of migrant children arriving in the country alone while the government identifies and vets sponsors.

In court filings published last month, one 13-year-old from Honduras held at the Fort Bliss shelter recounted that a friend was served raw or undercooked chicken “that still had feathers in it.”

The population at Fort Bliss has been significantly reduced in recent weeks. As of late June, there were around 1,600 children at the shelter, according to HHS. There are currently roughly 14,500 children in HHS custody at several shelters.

A spokesperson for HHS didn’t immediately return a request for comment on the whistleblower allegations.