Central American migrants walk through an improvised refugee camp at the Benito Juarez sports center in Tijuana, Mexico. (Photographer: Alejandro Cegarra/Bloomberg)

Border Camp for Migrant Children Has ‘Dangerously Low’ Staffing

(Bloomberg) -- A makeshift holding facility for hundreds of unaccompanied immigrant teenagers on the Texas border has a “dangerously low” number of clinicians to care for children and failed to conduct required FBI background checks on staff, according to new a federal watchdog report.

“Both issues warrant immediate attention because they pose substantial risks to children receiving care at this facility,” the Health and Human Services inspector general wrote in the report to administration officials.

The federal Office of Refugee Resettlement has been working since September with the contractor operating the site “to resolve outstanding issues” about background checks and staffing, HHS spokesman Mark Weber said in an email. BCFS, the Texas nonprofit contracted to run the facility, did not return a message seeking comment.

The Tornillo Influx Facility was opened in June to hold as many as 1,800 migrants between 13 and 17 years old before they can be placed in more permanent shelters. The government has committed up to $430 million to more than double its capacity and keep it open at least through the end of the year, the report said.

The camp, which is near El Paso, was established after the Trump administration began separating families who had crossed the border illegally. It wasn’t meant to be permanent, so it’s “devoid of permanent infrastructure, such as fixed facilities for housing, dining, and toileting, and all utilities,” the report said.

Because it’s on federal property, Tornillo is not required to be licensed by the state of Texas, as permanent shelters would be. That means that U.S. authorities are responsible for enforcing standards to ensure the safety of children there.

The 1,300 staff and contractors running the camp were not subject to FBI background checks and searches for accusations of child maltreatment, the OIG reported. Both are typically required for federal facilities caring for unaccompanied minors.

Workers were given more cursory background checks by a private vendor, but not the comprehensive fingerprint FBI checks required, the report said, adding that Trump administration officials were not aware that Tornillo wasn’t doing fingerprint checks.

Tornillo received a waiver for the child abuse checks from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement two days before it began operating, citing the urgency of opening the camp, according to the report. A memo waiving the requirement also justified it “on the basis of ORR’s assumption that staff at Tornillo had undergone FBI fingerprint background checks. However, as OIG has learned, that was not the case.”

Weber, the HHS spokesman, said the background checks employees at Tornillo get offer “similar criminal information” as fingerprint background checks.

The inspector general also said the number of clinicians to provide mental health care for the children is “dangerously low.” Typically, the refugee office requires one clinician for every 12 children. As of Oct. 5, Tornillo had one clinician for every 55 children, though it has been allowed to set staffing ratios as low as 1 to 100.

“We are concerned that both the current staffing ratio and the ORR allowable budgeted staffing ratio are dangerously low,” the report added. The number of staff is likely too low to properly respond to the youngsters’ mental health needs, “particularly for a population believed to have experienced significant trauma,” according to the report.

The only other emergency shelter comparable to Tornillo, a Florida site known as Homestead, both conducts FBI background checks on staff and is required to maintain a 1-to-12 clinician to child ratio, according to the report.

HHS’s Weber said that mental-health clinicians visit each child daily and that those who need additional care are “transferred to a more appropriate facility.” As of Nov. 27, the staffing ratio at Tornillo was one clinician for every 43 children, Weber said, a ratio he called sufficient.

The OIG also said that the number of children held at Tornillo has increased, as did how long they stayed there, to an average of 27 days as of Oct. 9.

“We are concerned that upward trends in average length of stay could indicate that Tornillo is or will be functioning more like a shelter care facility, thereby moving away from its initial design as an emergency short-term-care facility,” the report said.

The OIG gave the Office of Refugee Resettlement 30 days to respond in writing with how it would address the issues raised by the report.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.