WASHINGTON — New audio from inside a U.S. government shelter for unaccompanied migrant children in Fort Bliss, Texas, reveals allegations of sexual misconduct by staff toward minors, acknowledgment the children were running low on clean clothes and shoes and a reluctance by officials to make public the scope of the facility's Covid outbreak.
"We have already caught staff with minors inappropriately. Is that OK with you guys?" says a federal contractor running a training session with staffers inside Fort Bliss in May.
The crowd shouts back, "No!"
"I hope not," she says.
"If you catch them, especially if it's a staff member, you separate that minor from that person immediately," the contractor says, making no mention of flagging supervisors to report the incident.
At its peak this spring, the temporary facility at Fort Bliss held nearly 5,000 migrant children, as the Department of Health and Human Services scrambled to take in children who were overcrowding Border Patrol stations. At the time of the training session, the facility held about 3,000 minors.
Later in the training session, the contractor says children have complained about staff bouncing up and down on their beds to wake them up.
"I know there have been a lot of complaints from minors about staff members waking them up in the morning," she says. "We've got some staff members that are picking up and shaking the bed to wake up the minor. Or they're bouncing them on the bed. They think they're being playful, but that constitutes child abuse. I want you guys to know that."
A few minutes later, she acknowledges there is a shortage of clean clothes and shoes for minors.
"We are aware of a shortage of underwear, socks and shoes. Management knows, and we're working on getting more for the minors," she says.
In a statement, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said the agency takes "every allegation of wrongdoing seriously."
"Every emergency intake site we have launched, we started from scratch," Becerra said. "We constantly work to improve the conditions and services required to care for children in these challenging shelter settings."
The federal contractor's comment confirms recent allegations from whistleblowers who came forward to talk about the difficulty they had in getting clean clothes for children at the shelter.
Arthur Pearlstein and Lauren Reinhold, two federal workers recently detailed to Fort Bliss in April, May and June, said in a report filed by the Government Accountability Project that when they raised concerns with government workers and contractors in charge, they were told to wait.
"There were so many of them that complained that they had no underwear or one pair with nothing to change into," Pearlstein told NBC News. "I began to ask some of the management officials, 'Well, can't a federal employee that has a purchase card just go to Walmart or Costco?'"
But Pearlstein said he was told, "No, the contractor needs to wait for it."
In another meeting with Fort Bliss employees, a doctor for the U.S. Public Health Service refused to give out information on Covid rates, according to audio obtained by NBC News.
"I can't give you daily numbers and breakouts and graphs and things like that," he said. "Assume everyone has Covid, act appropriately. … Sorry, it's not a great answer."
The doctor also acknowledged there had been reports of sexual activity at the shelter, though he did not say whether staff had been involved with minors.
An employee asked: "There is a concern about the kids having sex with each other and possible sexual assault. Thoughts on that?"
"That's been on our radar since day one," the doctor answered. "That will always be a situation that you're always dealing with. There are processes for reporting, for intervening, for doing interviews on allegations."
He added, "Having gender separation has been fantastic, right? OK, it's better than where it was in the first week, when we had boys and girls in the first week and there's no barrier. Imagine that."
In responding to earlier reporting by NBC News on the allegations Pearlstein and Reinhold detailed in their complaint, an HHS spokesperson said: "The care and well-being of children in our custody continues to be a top priority for HHS. 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. It remains our policy to swiftly report any alleged instances of wrongdoing to the appropriate authorities."
Today, Pearlstein said, the Fort Bliss facility holds far fewer children, alleviating some of the overcrowding concerns.
But he and Reinhold still worry that the government is not being transparent about what is happening inside.
"We were told to not share practically everything we witnessed there," Reinhold said. "We were told not to be on social media, to limit our conversations about the site with close friends and family and to definitely not talk to the media."