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Government Watchdog finds failures at Fort Bliss emergency shelter for migrant children

A government watchdog discovered that the rapid staffing of an emergency shelter for unaccompanied migrant children at Fort Bliss may have put their safety at risk.

More than 33,000 children have been detained at the shelter – run by private contractors for a division of the federal Department of Health and Human Services – since it opened in March 2021 to handle a surge in the number of migrant children crossing the border American without a parent or legal guardian.

“Over the past decade, there has been a lot of year-to-year variation in the number of unaccompanied children who are referred” to the care of HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, said Dana Squires. , Deputy Regional Inspector General in the Office of HHS. Evaluation and inspections. “We were surprised by ORR’s lack of preparedness to support the thousands of children arriving in 2021.”

As of Monday, there were 1,328 unaccompanied children at the Fort Bliss shelter, which continues to operate under a $2.6 billion contract. HHS said 9,612 unaccompanied minors are being cared for by ORR nationwide.

‘Emergency foster’ sites were the Biden administration’s response last year to get unaccompanied children out of Border Patrol custody within 72 hours and into the government agency’s legal custody. responsible for looking after them, the ORR.

At the time, there were no published guidelines on how “emergency” sites should be operated; the requirements established soon after fell below the minimum required for “residential care facilities,“said the defenders.

In an email response to questions, an HHS spokesperson said the agency had been seeking solutions to investigators’ findings of case management issues, inadequate case manager training and a climate that had made silence potential whistleblowers at the Fort Bliss emergency shelter.

HHS did not respond to a request for an interview with ORR management.

“ORR has activated emergency residential facilities to expedite the quick and safe transfer of children from DHS custody, where facilities are unsuitable for children for extended periods of time,” HHS said in the response. by e-mail. “As these sites were established, ORR quickly implemented case management services and immediately responded to any concerns about services that did not meet our standards or had an impact on the well-being of children.

Reports from workers inside the emergency shelter suggest the problems continued for months into the spring and summer of 2021.

Conditions in tents erected at Fort Bliss by disaster management firm Rapid Deployment Inc. were described to the El Paso Times as “crammed,” “traumatic” and risky to children’s health and safety. U.S. Representative Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, denounced “ineffective oversight” in May 2021 and raised early concerns about shortcomings in case management. Back then, children would go days or weeks without access to case managers or communication about when they might be reunited with their American sponsor, usually a parent or family member.

The prime contract for the Fort Bliss Emergency Shelter began with an approximately $200 million, three-month assignment. It ballooned in its second year to over $2.6 billion with options for expansion underway. The latest extension, from July to September, is described as a “modification” intended to “increase the level of effort”.

RDI general manager Bruce Wagner did not respond to an email interview request.

“OIG has a long-standing commitment to protecting children in the care of HHS,” Squires said. “When we started hearing concerns from the media, members of Congress, child welfare advocates and facility staff, we went out there to assess the situation.”

The report released last week contains findings based on dozens of interviews with federal and contract workers at the Fort Bliss shelter and an on-site visit in July 2021. The HHS Inspector General found that:

  • “inexperienced and untrained” case managers were hired to handle sensitive cases of unaccompanied children;
  • ORR did not provide case managers with adequate training to ensure children were placed with a safe sponsor;
  • infrequent communication by case managers with children in the emergency shelter caused the children “stress, anxiety and, in some cases, panic attacks”;
  • “alleged acts of retaliation and whistleblower chilling” contributed to creating a work environment in which staff felt discouraged from reporting issues that put children’s safety at risk.

When children cross the US border without a parent or legal guardian, Border Patrol is supposed to quickly transfer them to ORR to place them in one of dozens of shelters across the country – a network run largely by service providers. non-profit care.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing and quarantine protocol forced state-licensed shelters to reduce the number of children they could accommodate as the number of children arriving alone soared.

In state-licensed shelters, case managers are responsible for reuniting children with a sponsor in the United States, usually a parent or close relative who can serve as a guardian. Sponsors must pass thorough background checks to ensure the safety of the children, and once in their care, the children can apply for legal immigration status in the United States.

An ORR official explained to investigators why experienced and well-trained case managers are so crucial in dealing with unaccompanied children: “The population we support is an at-risk population,” the official told investigators. “They are children; they are inherently vulnerable. Unfortunately, there are bad actors in the world who specifically target programs that support and provide services to children so that they can victimize and abuse children.

A federal specialist in the field told investigators, “EIS facility contractors had to hire a large number of case managers in an extremely short period of time. Unfortunately, this seems to have been done at the expense of hiring people [with] the knowledge, skills or abilities necessary to serve as qualified case managers in the UC (unaccompanied children) program.

At the peak of unaccompanied minor arrivals in 2021, more than 22,500 children were in the care of ORR, and the Biden administration had more than a dozen “emergency reception sites” operating in all the countries. None remain, according to HHS.

The Fort Bliss shelter and another emergency site in Pecos, Texas, are still open but have met standards enough to be renamed “temporary influx” shelters, HHS said.

Squires confirmed that the OIG is auditing ACF’s contract award and monitoring processes for “emergency reception sites”, and the results of the audit are expected in early 2023.

“Currently, children spend, on average, only 11 days at the Influx Care Facility in Fort Bliss and meet with a case manager at least once a week,” HHS said in the email. “We have 126 mental health and behavior counselors on site. We have increased case management services to unite children safely and quickly with approved sponsors.”

HHS added that it has 256 case managers on site at the Fort Bliss shelter.

HHS Inspector General Investigators said the HHS Administration for Children and Families, ORR’s direct parent, accepted their recommendations and ORR provided a “summary of action taken.” to respond to findings.

The remedies listed in the report include efforts to streamline the hiring of qualified case managers; a new case management approach; additional quality control mechanisms to increase communication between case managers, children and their potential sponsors; and updates to a case management portal.

ORR installed a quality control team at Fort Bliss in 2021, HHS said. More than 1,000 staff at the shelter have received ORR training, including on child protective practices, behavior management, trauma-informed care and cultural competency, HHS said. Allegations of abuse or misconduct “are treated immediately with the utmost seriousness,” according to HHS.

“We have really urged ORR and ACF to develop and implement a plan to support entrepreneurs in the event of an influx,” Squires said. “We hope that ACF will really make efforts in response to the recommendation we made.”

Lauren Villagran can be contacted at [email protected]

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