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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.

Go deeper

Federal judge blocks Biden administration's use of Title 42 policy

Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A federal judge on Thursday blocked the Biden administration from enforcing a public health order that fast-tracked deportations of migrant families at the southern border.

Why it matters: President Biden has faced significant backlash for retaining the Trump-era policy, which was implemented as a COVID containment measure. The expulsions deny adult migrants and families the chance for asylum.

13 seconds ago - World

In reversal, Pentagon now says drone strike killed 10 Afghan civilians

Caskets for the dead are carried towards the gravesite as relatives and friends attend a mass funeral for members of a family that is said to have been killed in a U.S. drone airstrike, in Kabul on Aug. 30. Photo: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A U.S. drone strike launched on Aug. 29 killed 10 civilians in Afghanistan, including seven children, rather than the Islamic State extremists the Biden administration claimed it targeted, the Pentagon said Friday.

Why it matters: U.S. Central Command said at the time that officials "know" the drone strike "disrupted an imminent ISIS-K threat" to Kabul's airport, and that they were "confident we successfully hit the target."

UN warns of "catastrophic" climate change failure without more emissions cuts

UN Secretary-General António Guterres at a news conference. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

A United Nations report released Friday warned that the planet will likely warm by more than 2.7 degrees Celsius by the end of the century unless governments take extra steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Why it matters: The report, released just months ahead of November's UN Climate Summit, highlights the growing pressure on global leaders to crack down on emissions to avert the worst effects of climate change.