House Republicans press HHS on no-bid contracts amid claims of poor conditions at child migrant centers

Complaints about facilities for migrant children include lice, unwashed bedding, and loud music being played early in the morning

FIRST ON FOX: Republicans on the House Oversight Committee are pushing for answers from the Department of Health and Human Services on its use of "no-bid" contract awards amid reports of "disturbing" conditions at centers housing unaccompanied children coming across the border.

"In light of multiple whistleblower complaints received by the Committee alleging disturbing conditions at HHS Emergency Intake Sites (EIS) housing unaccompanied children, there are serious questions about HHS’ use of and failure to adequately oversee multiple contractors with no childcare experience," the letter penned by Ranking Member James Comer and other Republicans on the Committee says.

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"We are concerned that this has led to gross mismanagement and abuse.

HHS opened a number of sites as it struggled to deal with an influx of child migrants coming across the border unaccompanied as part of the surge in migration that has overwhelmed authorities. The sites, which included military bases, were opened to ease capacity at Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities at the border.

The lawmakers say that the committee received multiple complaints from whistleblowers detailed at the EIS at Fort Bliss, Texas, who alleged poor conditions and management – while a recent complaint said that the issues are "ongoing, systemic and repeated EIS-wide."

The complaints include "rampant" lice at multiple facilities and at Fort Bliss, overcrowded tents, unwashed bedding, children pleading for showers and clean underwear, loud music being played to wake up the children and resistance to requests for medical attention. 

"The whistleblowers were discouraged from providing feedback about these problems, and complaints made to HHS went unanswered," the letter says.

"If these reports are true, this is unacceptable. Not only is this a gross mismanagement of taxpayer dollars, but it is inhumane treatment of children," the letter adds. "This cannot be allowed to continue in America."

In a statement to Fox News on Thursday, HHS said that it acts quickly to address concerns about the care of migrant children, and had closed sites that didn't meet its standards.

"It remains our policy to swiftly report any alleged instances of wrongdoing to the appropriate authorities," a spokesperson said. Any potential incident previously reported would have led to an investigation and disciplinary action."

"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. We have increased case management services to unite children safely and expeditiously with family, while we continue to improve and streamline this process," the spokesperson said. "At EIS at Ft. Bliss, children are temporarily housed for an average of 18 days. HHS will continue working with Congressional partners and others to provide the best possible care for all of the children referred to us."

The Republicans tie the allegations into HHS's decision to award contracts on a "no-bid" basis. The Associated Press reported in May that the government has awarded about $3 billion in contracts since February, more than $2 billion of which were "no-bid" contracts awarded to three recipients.

Those companies have traditionally responded to national disasters and built COVID-quarantine centers. But, as the U.S. encountered record numbers of unaccompanied children, they moved into shelter-construction.

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HHS has said that its Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) has unified more than 8,000 children with a parent or sponsor from Fort Bliss, and the average stay at the facility is 18 days. Additionally, more than 1,000 staff have received the required training which includes behavior management, cultural competence, child welfare training and trauma informed care. It also stressed the training is ongoing, partnered with a number of non-governmental organizations.

The GOP letter said that "[i]t is imperative that Committee Republicans understand whether HHS is adequately supervising its contractors, whether the contractors caring for children are actually qualified to do so, whether these contractors are providing the services they promised in exchange for billions of dollars in taxpayer funds, and if the allegations of neglect and poor conditions are true, then what steps are HHS and contractors taking to remedy the conditions."

The lawmakers request documents related to the complaints, to background check requirements, training for personnel and detailees and the contract awards.

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The request comes after Rep. Jody Hice, R-Texas, earlier this week requested information from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) on the impact that moving federal volunteers from their agencies to help with the migrant surge had on the working of their agencies.

Meanwhile, Customs and Border Protection announced Wednesday that there were 18,847 encounters of unaccompanied children in August, down slightly from July.