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U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, speaks at an event on March 29, 2021.
U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, speaks at an event on March 29, 2021. (Aaron E. Martinez / El Paso Times)

(Tribune News Service) — More than 4,300 children who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border alone are being held in what official and inside sources say are dangerous and distressing conditions at an emergency shelter at Fort Bliss.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services erected an “emergency intake site” for unaccompanied migrant children on the Army base in El Paso nine weeks ago. U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, child advocates and federal and contract workers inside the facility say the site is being poorly managed and children are suffering.

They say children are languishing for weeks without speaking to a caseworker who can reunite them with a sponsor in the U.S.; that COVID-19, other infectious diseases and lice have grown rampant; that some contract caregivers lack adequate training to work with the children, aged 13 to 17, temporarily housed there.

Children are receiving hot meals but are eating a repetitive diet, sources say, and some have inadequate access to showers and clean clothes.

In addition to interviews with official sources, El Paso Times based this account on conversations with two insiders: a contract employee who spent roughly five weeks as a youth care worker at the Fort Bliss site before resigning the position and a federal worker who is among the dozens of “volunteers” from within disparate U.S. agencies who have taken a temporary assignment caring for unaccompanied children.

After visiting the site twice over the weekend — including alongside HHS Sec. Xavier Becerra on Sunday — Escobar said among her top concerns are the enormous size of the tents; “ineffective oversight” of a large number of subcontractors and vendors; and the slow pace of case management for the children.

She spent roughly four hours at the Fort Bliss facility Sunday and stopped to talk to children about their experience in the care of the U.S. government, she said.

“When I went into the boys’ tent, there are literally hundreds of boys in these very low-to-the-ground bunk beds,” Escobar said. “I think having that many people all together in one space is risky to their health and their safety. I think it makes supervision and oversight nearly impossible.

“My other area of deep concern,” she said, “is the fact that we have kids who have been in that facility for a significant period of time. I met children who had been there for over 40 days. That is absolutely unacceptable, and it is deeply alarming.”

HHS, which takes custody of unaccompanied migrant children and oversees the emergency shelter, has not granted the El Paso Times’ requests to tour the Fort Bliss facility.

The children at the “emergencyhave ample access to medical care, hot meals, showers, clean clothing and recreation time, according to HHS.

Asked about the concerns over alleged subpar conditions in the large-scale facility, Becerra told the El Paso Times, “What I saw was a large operation to care for over 4,000 children in a border region that not only was showing real progress but was providing for the needs of kids who have gone through some really traumatic experiences, which would probably be hard for any of us to imagine.”

“Health and Human Services is going to do what we are legally and morally obligated to do, and that is provide that safe and healthy environment for these kids,” he said.

The children spend most of their days in the warehouse-sized tents, girls and boys in separate quarters, said a person who spent roughly five weeks as a youth care worker at the Fort Bliss site before resigning the position. The worker requested anonymity to avoid reprisals in a current job, which is in the same field.

“It’s like the Walking Dead,” the former youth care worker said. “White tents as far as you can see. The security department, the medical tent, the cafeteria.”

The children sleep on “metal beds with two layers of ― you know that green stuff you use to put on your fence for privacy? It’s like that tied around the bars. They don’t have a mattress. It’s mesh wrapped around the poles. The (children) literally have no space.”

The U.S. Army is not responsible for the site, according to HHS, and military personnel do not staff the tents or care for the children.

Among the 11 dormitory tents, the former youth care worker said, are six known among coworkers as “COVID City,” for children who have tested positive for the virus. HHS calls the area “Healing Hill,” HHS said in a statement to the El Paso Times.

There were about 300 children in “medical isolation” at the Fort Bliss site as of Wednesday, according to the statement, “almost all COVID.”

“The numbers are less than anticipated, and the site is well-situated to manage with CDC onsite to monitor compliance with COVID mitigation strategies,” HHS said in the statement.

Spokeswoman Audrey Garcia confirmed that El Paso Children’s Hospital has seen patients transferred from the Fort Bliss site for medical care but declined to say for what ailments, citing medical privacy regulations.

Escobar, child advocates, the former youth care worker and federal “volunteer” all shared concerns about the children’s mental health, given the scale and what appears to be infrequent communication between many children and their caseworker.

The former youth care worker has witnessed children have panic attacks “and get wheeled out” of their dormitory tent.

“We’re not supposed to get to know them. We’re not supposed to know their story,” said the youth care worker, who, despite orders, bonded with ― and constantly worries about ― a group of children who hadn’t seen a caseworker. “It was so stressful. I think the first two weeks I cried every day that I came home.”

The number of children arriving at the Southwest border without a parent or legal guardian began to rise sharply earlier this year, jumping from fewer than 5,000 children per month through December to more than 18,700 children in March before slowing slightly to about 17,000 children in April.

The influx of unaccompanied minors quickly outpaced the government’s ability to house them in the existing network of about 200 state-licensed shelters managed by the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Those shelters, which provide a higher level of care and services to children, have a total licensed capacity of about 13,500 beds. Currently, about 8,000 of those beds are available because of the downsizing that happened during the pandemic, according to HHS.

As of Wednesday, HHS had more than 18,000 unaccompanied children in its care, down from a peak of 22,500 in mid-April.

Faced with an increasing number of children in its care — and bent on removing them from U.S. Customs and Border Protection holding stations and processing centers — the Biden administration opened 17 “influx” and so-called “emergency intake” shelters in fewer than three months, through May 1.

An “emergency intake” site in Houston with capacity to hold 500 girls was shut down in April after two weeks, following allegations of poor conditions. The girls were released to sponsors or transferred to other HHS sites.

“The program for unaccompanied children has changed in a fundamental way with the addition of emergency intake sites,” said Mark Greenberg, senior director of the Human Services Initiative at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., in a report.

“Most children in custody are now in these sites, which are not state-licensed, have reduced staffing requirements and reduced services, and in some cases have serious deficiencies in their operations,” he said.

HHS set up “emergency intake” sites at convention centers, military bases and oil worker man camps in Texas, California, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Altogether, the agency created capacity to house more than 16,000 children, with room to grow and shelter nearly twice that many.

Fort Bliss is the largest of emergency sites, with capacity for 5,000 beds and space to expand to 10,000 beds, according to HHS.

Becerra declined to confirm to the El Paso Times whether the government planned to bring more children to the site.

The federal “volunteer” worker at Fort Bliss said, “We’re ramping up. We’re going to have 10,000 very soon.”

“The question we should be asking is, is the problem the size of the facilities? Or is it an issue of having the right staff in the right place, and the right partnerships with organizations to provide that capacity?” said Ali Noorani, chief executive of the National Immigration Forum, a nonpartisan advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.

“The administration really needs to prioritize putting the staffing in place so these situations don’t arise and these kids are safe,” he said.

The federal “volunteer,” one of roughly 800 federal workers from around the country who transferred from their day jobs to help at the Fort Bliss emergency shelter, said many of the youth care workers, known for the yellow shirts they wear, lack training.

“There is a high turnover rate for them,” the volunteer said. “I spoke to a lady who said, ‘I had an interview at 9 and started working at 11.’ Basically they were needing bodies here but the thing is, they weren’t really properly trained.”

Escobar shared similar concerns about staffing and partnerships. It took her office weeks to obtain a list from HHS of subcontractors on site, she said.

“I suspect it’s because HHS doesn’t have the full list of subcontractors,” she said. “That is a huge red flag. I don’t know how they are being vetted; I don’t know how they are being evaluated. I don’t know what their metrics are for quality, for effectiveness, for efficiency.

“We can have a significant number of kids on Fort Bliss,” she said, “but the conditions need to be improved.”

___

(c)2021 the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas) Visit the El Paso Times at www.elpasotimes.com Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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