Watchdog: Strict background checks waived for staff at teen migrant facility

The inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services found the department was not, as of earlier this fall, conducting required FBI fingerprint background checks for the 1,300 staff members overseeing migrant children housed at a Texas facility.

In a memo from the department watchdog Tuesday, the inspector general reported that HHS relied on private contractors with access to less comprehensive data than the more rigorous FBI background check when hiring for the temporary facility in Tornillo, Texas, which sprang up in response to increased need at the border in June.

Additionally, the inspectors determined that there are not enough staff clinicians at the facility to provide “adequate mental health care” for the unaccompanied children housed there, according to the memo.

“Both issues warrant immediate attention because they pose substantial risks to children receiving care at this facility,” Daniel Levinson, the HHS inspector general, wrote in the eight-page document.

The Associated Press first reported the IG’s findings.

The report says Tornillo “provides medical, mental health, and recreational care on-site” for about 1,800 unaccompanied migrant children aged 13 to 17, and that as of early October children stay there an average of 27 days, up from 20 days.

“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 says.

The memo acknowledges that department officials had begun to address the background check issue. The inspector general plans to “follow up” to confirm that sufficient changes have been made, and requested a written response within 30 days confirming that the department is using proper fingerprinting procedures and sufficiently tending to the mental health of children at the facility.

HHS responded to the watchdog’s memo in a statement Tuesday night, saying the department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement began working in September 2018 and continues to work “to resolve the background check and clinical staffing issues identified in the report.”

HHS contended that BCFS Health and Human Services, the operator of the Tornillo facility, “has conducted the following pre-employment background check screenings for all employees since operations at Tornillo began. These checks show similar criminal information as fingerprint background checks.”

The department also pushed back on the memo’s assertion that individuals in the facility were not provided adequate mental health care, saying that children receive mental health screening prior to being placed in the Tornillo facility and are transferred out when appropriate.

“Tornillo has sufficient clinicians to provide emergency clinical mental health services or clinicians for (unaccompanied children) who request to meet with one,” the department said in a statement. “In fact, a mental health clinician visits each child every day. The clinicians at Tornillo provide crisis intervention, conduct group and individual counseling sessions as needed, and facilitate (unaccompanied children) phone calls to sponsors.”

CNN reported in September that HHS planned to triple the facility’s capacity to nearly 4,000 beds and keep it open at least until the end of the year.

The memo comes as more than 200 children from separated immigrant families remain in US custody.

Abuse has previously been an issue at other shelters responding to the influx of minors suddenly on their own due to the separation practice. In August, an Arizona shelter worker was accused of sexually abusing eight teenage boys, and a July report revealed more than 100 alleged sexual offenses at migrant child facilities over the past five years.