Unaccompanied migrant children held at a makeshift shelter in a Texas military base last year spent weeks without hearing any updates on their cases, causing distress, anxiety and panic attacks, according to an internal watchdog report released Tuesday.
A rapid staffing ramp-up at Fort Bliss resulted in inexperienced and overworked case managers responsible for hundreds of children, many of whom ended up falling through the cracks, according to the report from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General.
The report found that staffing shortages, high rates of turnover and the large number of children onsite led to overloaded case managers during the spring of 2021, which contributed to delays in providing children with updates.
“This created a situation where some children waited weeks between updates from their case managers, which staff at the facility reported as causing many children to experience distress, anxiety, and in some cases, panic attacks,” the Office of Inspector General said in its 58-page report.
For instance, a case management team member told investigators that, near the end of May, she became aware of a list of 700 children who had not been seen by a case manager for about two months.
“This lack of communication contributed to what another interviewee called ‘a pervasive sense of despair’ among children at the facility,” the report found.
A large influx of unaccompanied children crossing the border in the spring of 2021 forced the Biden administration to open more than a dozen emergency intake facilities: unlicensed, temporary facilities designed to meet basic standards of care for children on a short-term basis.
These facilities were quickly established to accommodate referrals for children from the Department of Homeland Security within 72 hours. Fort Bliss was the largest, with a capacity to house up to 10,000 children.
HHS launched the investigation in August 2021 after hearing numerous complaints about inadequate case management from members of Congress, child welfare advocates and staff at other HHS-run facilities.
The investigation relied on interviews with 66 Fort Bliss workers, a review of documents and a visit to the facility.
According to the report, children were afraid of being forgotten by case management staff, which led to uncertainty about when they would be released from the facility and reunited with their family or other sponsors.
A Fort Bliss worker told investigators that in one extreme case of a child in distress, a young girl began to hit and cut herself in front of a group of children after learning that her mother had not yet been contacted by a case manager as part of the sponsor screening process.
The girl was restrained by security guards and other staff and transferred to a psychiatric facility.
While unaccompanied children are in government custody, the U.S. is supposed to locate family members or sponsors who can care for them while they resolve their immigration status. Poor case management could result in extended stays in facilities meant to be temporary
The inexperienced case managers also meant children were released into potentially unsafe situations
The Office of the Inspector General found that the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement, which operated the facility, did not provide inexperienced case management staff with adequate training to help ensure children’s safe and timely release to sponsors.
“In some cases, release recommendations made by these inexperienced case managers reportedly failed to consider children’s significant history of abuse and neglect or whether sex offenders resided in the potential sponsor’s household,” the report found.
In addition, the report said some staff at Fort Bliss, as well as at the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) headquarters, faced potential retaliation after raising issues about case management and child safety, which caused hesitation among other staff who wished to share concerns.
Staff were allegedly removed from their roles at the facility and ORR headquarters after raising concerns to supervisors. Several other reports disclosed actions that may have created fear of retaliation among staff.
ORR’s parent agency agreed with all the report’s recommendations. In a letter to the inspector general, the HHS Administration for Children and Families pledged to more explicitly specify the protections in contractor agreements and trainings.