Watchdog: Migrant facility's mental health services 'dangerously low'

By Danielle Haynes
A "tent" city at the Tornillo port of entry in Texas has less than one-fourth of the recommended number of mental health clinicians on staff to assist unaccompanied migrant children. File Photo by Larry W. Smith/EPA-EFE
A "tent" city at the Tornillo port of entry in Texas has less than one-fourth of the recommended number of mental health clinicians on staff to assist unaccompanied migrant children. File Photo by Larry W. Smith/EPA-EFE

Nov. 27 (UPI) -- A Texas detention center for unaccompanied migrant children does not staff enough mental health clinicians nor does it conduct an FBI fingerprint background check on employees, a watchdog memo released Tuesday said.

The Department of Health and Human Services' Inspector General outlined staffing problems at the so-called "tent city" in Tornillo, Texas, which held 1,659 unaccompanied migrant children between 13 and 17 years old as of Sept. 25.


As of Oct. 3, the facility, operated by Baptist Child Facility Services Health and Human Services had one mental health clinician for every 55 children, down from a 1:36 ratio during the period between May and July 2018. The Office of Refugee Resettlement recommends more than four times as many clinicians, a ratio of one for every 12 children.

The BCFS HHS budget for 2018, though, provides for a 1:100 ratio, a number the IG memo calls "dangerously low."


"It is unclear how clinician staff at Tornillo could properly assess and respond to the [unaccompanied children's] mental health needs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, given the current and budgeted staffing ratios, particularly for a population believed to have experienced significant trauma," the memo reads.

"The disproportionately high number of children to clinicians is especially worrisome in light of the continued increase in the number of children and length of stay at Tornillo."

The IG said the increasing lengths of stay at the "tent city" indicates it's moving away from its initial design as an emergency short-term facility. The watchdog recommends Tornillo increases its number of clinicians to a higher ratio of one to every 12 children, on par with longer-term HHS facilities.

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In October, a U.N. health expert warned detaining migrant children separate from their families is detrimental to their mental health and well-being and could "amount to torture."

Dr. Dainius Pūras told UPI at the time he focused his report, titled "Right to Mental Health of People on the Move," on mental health and migration because "outdated practices are used too often." He wants to focus on "how to invest in mental health, and how to manage situations with large numbers of migrants, refugees, asylum seekers" because these can "offer huge opportunities for the global community and for each country."


The IG also took issue with the Tornillo facility's background check process for employees. A senior official at Tornillo told the watchdog the state of Texas doesn't perform FBI checks there because the facility isn't licensed by the state. Instead, it contracts with a private vendor to perform less stringent checks based on an individual's name.

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"The FBI fingerprint check of national and state registries ensures positive identification by eliminating any errors that may arise under name-based checks," the IG memo reads. "Moreover, the FBI fingerprint background check determines whether an individual has a criminal history across all jurisdictions: federal, state and local."

The memo also said Tornillo was not conducting required child abuse/neglect background checks, which were waived by the Trump administration in June. The ORR said the waiver was put in place based on time constraints and because the state may be unwilling or unable to perform the check for a facility under federal jurisdiction.

After the watchdog review, the ORR said it is now ensuring the use of FBI fingerprint checks at the facility.

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The IG memo said the issues found in its review "warrant immediate attention because they pose substantial risks to children receiving care at this facility."


The Tornillo "tent city" is undergoing a $360 million expansion, increasing its number of beds to 3,800. It opened June 13 as a "temporary emergency influx shelter" about 35 miles from El Paso on federal property at the Tornillo international port of entry.

Tornillo is a product of an exponential rise of detained migrant children. In September, The New York Times reported 12,800 children were in custody -- up from 2,400 in May 2017, according to statistics collected by HHS and given to members of Congress.

The increase is partly attributed to enhanced background checks the government says it requires to release children to sponsors in the United States. New rules require a sponsor to submit fingerprints of all people living in the household.

Customs and Border Protection released figures earlier this month showing the Border Patrol apprehended 4,991 unaccompanied migrant children in October, up from 3,155 in October 2017, and down from a fiscal year 2018 high of 6,367 in May.

Patrick Timmons contributed to this report.

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