Updated Jul 29, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Whistleblowers: Depression plagues migrant children in border camp

Photo of the entrance to the U.S. Army Fort Bliss base with a stand that states its name and Pershing Gate

Photo: Adria Malcolm/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Unaccompanied migrant children detained in the U.S. Fort Bliss Army base in Texas live in poor mental and physical conditions, according to a whistleblower complaint submitted to Congress and government watchdogs on Wednesday.

Why it matters: The complaint corroborates reports of migrant children's distress in the camps overseen by the Biden administration. The president has faced criticism for his response to the record surge in unaccompanied minors illegally crossing the southern border.

Details: Overcrowding and inadequate access to mental health services led to severe trauma among migrant children, two civil servants in the federal government said in the complaint.

  • Arthur Pearlstein, a director at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service who became one of the whistleblowers, interviewed dozens of children who showed symptoms of depression, including suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
    • "Many, if not most, of the children Mr. Pearlstein interviewed — if they had been at the facility more than a few days — told him they felt like they were in prison and often begged 'please get me out of here, I don't know if I can take it anymore,'" the complaint said. "In some cases, children tried to escape the facility."
  • Staff who were unequipped and unqualified to evaluate their mental health needs. Some children's requests to speak to a counselor were outright denied or dismissed, according to the complaint.
    • One clinician’s primary response to a boy who felt sad and depressed was to tell him that "he had nothing to complain about and that, in fact, he should feel grateful for all he was being given," Pearlstein reported.

Hundreds of migrant teenagers were forced into close quarters, so that waste and dirty clothes accumulated over time, per the complaint. Some boys had to go without underwear for weeks at a time.

  • Nearly 2,900 unaccompanied minors tested positive for COVID-19 on arrival at U.S. government shelters over the past year — including around 300 in March — an HHS official told Axios' Stef Kight.

"[G]ross mismanagement" led to abuse of authority and failures in case management, the complaint levied.

  • Pearlstein conveyed one "disturbing" incident in which construction workers sexually harassed young migrant girls who then attempted to report the incident but were ignored, according to the complaint.
  • In multiple instances, groups of children who were brought to the airport and told they were going home were "suddenly told it was a mistake and brought back to the facility."

Zoom in: "The Fort Bliss children did not and could not trust that they were safe, that their basic needs would be met, or that their sponsorship/placement cases were being timely processed," the complaint states.

  • "The most frequent complaint heard from children was that they were in a state of total uncertainty and anxiety, with no idea of what to expect next."
  • The Government Accountability Project filed the complaint, which was shared with four congressional committees, the Office of Special Counsel and the Office of Inspector General at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

What they're saying: An HHS spokesperson said in an emailed statement to Axios Wednesday night the care and well-being of children in its custody continued to be "a top priority" for the department.

  • "Currently, children at the Emergency Intake Site at Fort Bliss meet with a case manager weekly and we have close to 60 mental health and behavioral counselors on site working with the children," the spokesperson added.
  • "It remains our policy to swiftly report any alleged instances of wrongdoing to the appropriate authorities."

The big picture: The Biden administration has released thousands of migrant children to caretakers in the U.S. as part of its program for unaccompanied minors, but there's little-to-no visibility about what actually happens to them.

  • As of Tuesday, tents inside Fort Bliss housed 1,692 children, including 1,145 boys and 547 girls, per government data obtained by CBS News.

Editor's note: This article has been updated with comment from the HHS.

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