Migrant children placed by the US government in a makeshift shelter at a military base in the Texas desert suffered panic attacks last year because officials lacked the resources and training to release them in a timely and safe manner, an internal investigation released Tuesday found. .

Inexperienced and untrained federal employees and contractors assigned to place migrant children at Fort Bliss were ill-equipped to place thousands of unaccompanied Central American children with family members in the U.S., extending their stay at the military base, the Department of Defense Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General concluded after an annual review.

The Biden administration’s rushed efforts to house a record number of unaccompanied minors who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border last year, the inspector general said, led to HHS hiring people “who lacked knowledge of child welfare best practices” as supervisors. cases to verify the potential of sponsors for children.

Due to overcrowding, understaffing, high turnover and inexperience of staff, the hundreds of unaccompanied children housed at the HHS tent camp at Fort Bliss, which last year could house up to 10,000 teenage migrant boys and girls, have spent as much as two months without seeing the case manager.

“This created a situation where some children waited weeks to hear from their supervisors, which staff said caused many children distress, anxiety and, in some cases, panic attacks,” the Office of Inspector General said in a statement. 58 pages the report.

Defense Secretary Mattis confirms that detained migrants will be housed on military bases
Entrance to Fort Bliss on June 25, 2018 in Fort Bliss, Texas.

Joe Riddle/Getty Images

A Fort Bliss worker told investigators they witnessed a distraught migrant girl cut herself in front of other children after learning case managers had not spoken to her mother about her release. According to the report, the girl was restrained by security and taken to a psychiatric hospital.

“They felt like they were being forgotten about,” one Fort Bliss youth care worker told investigators.

In addition to “unnecessary delays” in releasing migrant children, poor case management has undermined efforts to ensure that minors are not placed with adults who could harm them, according to the report, which was based on interviews with 66 Fort Bliss workers, review documents. and visiting the facility.

“In some cases, the release recommendations made by these inexperienced case managers reportedly did not take into account significant histories of child abuse and neglect, and whether sex offenders lived in the prospective sponsor’s household,” the report said.

The inspector general’s findings echo a series of CBS News reports last year detailing the deteriorating mental health of unaccompanied minors held at the Fort Bliss tent camp, the largest housing facility the U.S. government has ever created for migrant children.

The HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement is responsible for placing unaccompanied children who do not have legal status until they turn 18 or can be placed with a relative or sponsor in the United States. Pandemic-related capacity restrictions have resulted in thousands of unaccompanied minors being held in inadequate Border Patrol facilities.

The Fort Bliss tent complex, which opened in March 2021, was one of more than a dozen “emergency reception sites” that HHS established last year at military installations, convention centers and labor camps to reduce overcrowding in Border Patrol detention centers. which are not intended for the maintenance of minors.

While they have alleviated dangerous overcrowding at Border Patrol facilities, the emergency shelters have highlighted the risks of quickly creating makeshift juvenile housing structures that do not have the same standards or services as traditional state-licensed HHS shelters on child care. .

In May 2021, CBS News reported Migrant children at Fort Bliss had limited access to showers, clean clothes, caregivers, and educational services. at that time many children spent weeks at the base despite her temporary role. In interviews with attorneys, some described conversations about self-harm and suicidal thoughts.

In June 2021, federal volunteers and workers at Fort Bliss told CBS News that migrant teenagers in the facility were constantly monitored for panic attacks, self-harm and escape attempts. Out of concern for children’s mental health, officials have banned pencils, pens, scissors, nail clippers, toothbrushes and other items that minors can use to harm themselves. Some children were put on the suicide list.

After details of poor living conditions and mental health issues emerged, HHS canceled plans to house “vulnerable” minors there. He also dramatically reduced the number of children held at Fort Bliss and put managers and mental health professionals in place.

However, despite calls for its closure, the Fort Bliss facility has remained in operation for more than a year since its inception. Earlier this year, HHS converted the site to a more permanent “inflow care facility,” which has higher standards of care and maintenance than emergency admissions sites.

In her response to the inspector general’s findings, Januari Contreras, the HHS assistant secretary who oversees the unaccompanied minors program, acknowledged that the “evolution of service delivery” at Fort Bliss has been “significant,” saying investigators have examined “one of the most challenging periods” in the history of the program.

Contreras noted several efforts to improve conditions at Fort Bliss, including expanding medical, educational, medical, mental health and recreational services. In a statement to CBS News, HHS said it now has nearly 300 case managers assigned to migrant children at Fort Bliss, which had fewer than 600 teenagers on Monday.

“Currently, children spend an average of only 13 days in care at the Influx Care Facility at Fort Bliss and meet with a case manager at least weekly. We have 126 mental health and behavioral health counselors,” HHS said.

A senior HHS official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss department policy, said the Fort Bliss tented camp remains open and under renovation despite deficient conditions and troubling allegations last year because of the thousands of beds the facility offers. .

“If we had already closed (Fort Bliss), we would have seen a backup at the border,” an HHS official told CBS News. “We would once again see hundreds, if not thousands, of children in Customs and Border Protection (detention) with nowhere to go.” And this is obviously unacceptable.”

Shelter for migrant children
In this March 30, 2021 file photo, juveniles lie inside a Border Patrol capsule in Donna, the main detention center for unaccompanied minors in the Rio Grande Valley.

Dario Lopez-Mills/AP

The inspector general’s office also cited interviews with some HHS officials and Fort Bliss workers who reported facing retaliation or hearing about co-workers who faced retaliation after raising concerns about conditions at the facility and the safety of children.

In addition to the findings related to Fort Bliss, the inspector general’s report raised questions HHS policies designed to expedite the release of certain unaccompanied children in the custody of the department.

In March 2021, HHS issued a memo to expedite the release of migrant children in the custody of their parents or legal guardians by eliminating single-party background checks and ending background checks on non-sponsoring adult family members. Another memorandum waives some of the background checks required to exempt children sponsored by close relatives, such as grandparents or older siblings.

HHS said it adopted the policy to ensure that children do not waste time needlessly in care if they have sponsors willing to care for them, noting that parents and close relatives pose less of a safety risk than other sponsors. But the inspector general said the policy was developed “without appropriate input” from child welfare experts.

“Some ORR managers and other staff have expressed concern that this policy prioritizes speedy clearance over safety by eliminating important safeguards in the sponsor verification process,” the report said Tuesday, citing the refugee office.

HHS agreed with all of the inspector general’s recommendations, which included implementing a policy to hire qualified case managers, improve staff training, establish a policy development process that solicits input from child welfare experts, and inform employees of their right to file a whistleblower complaint.

HHS accepted 122,000 unaccompanied children in fiscal year 2021, an all-time high which broke the previous record. While the number of unaccompanied minors at the border remains high, HHS has reduced the length of time they spend in detention. As of Friday, the agency housed more than 9,000 migrant children.