Two migrant children who died in U.S. custody could've been saved, says doctor

Felipe Gomez Alonzo, 8, and Jakelin Caal, 7, died from the flu and sepsis respectively while in U.S. custody shortly after crossing into the U.S. in 2018.
Image: Jakelin Caal Felipe G?mez Alonzo
Jakelin Caal and Felipe Gomez Alonzo

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By Julia Ainsley

WASHINGTON — Two migrant children who died in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection in late 2018 could have been saved had agents and health-care workers taken the appropriate steps to ensure their medical care, according to letters from a pediatric physician and professor at Harvard Medical School that were submitted to Congress on Wednesday and obtained by NBC News.

Felipe Gomez Alonzo, 8, and Jakelin Caal, 7, both from Guatemala, died from the flu and sepsis respectively while in U.S. Border Patrol custody shortly after crossing into the U.S. with their fathers in December 2018.

At the time, Customs and Border Protection said the remote locations in which the children arrived and the arduous journeys they had endured complicated their medical care, relieving border agents of any blame in their deaths.

But letters to the parents of the children from Fiona Danaher, a pediatrician at Massachusetts General Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School, indicate more could have been done to save their lives.

Danaher reviewed witness statements and autopsy reports for both Gomez Alonzo and Caal.

In writing to Gomez Alonzo's father, Danaher said, "His clinicians missed important clues about the severity of his illness, and they prescribed the wrong medication to treat him."

She went on to say, "When you later asked the Border Patrol agents to take Felipe back to the hospital due to his worsening condition, it took nearly an hour and fifteen minutes for the transporting agent to arrive. All of these errors delayed Felipe receiving the medical care that he so urgently needed."

Catarina Alonzo, center, mother of Felipe Gomez Alonzo, cries at her home in the village of Yalambojoch, Guatemala, on Dec. 27, 2018.Luis Echeverria / Reuters

Click here to read the letter.

Danaher wrote to Caal's father, Mr. Caal Cuz: "Unfortunately, the Border Patrol agents at the forward operating base where Jakelin was apprehended did not conduct sufficient screening to identify her illness before the first bus left for the border patrol station."

Click here to read the letter.

Danaher testified at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on Wednesday on CBP's medical care for children in its custody.

She told both parents that what happened to their children was not their fault.

"The law enforcement systems that should have protected her, failed her," Danaher told Caal's father in her letter.

CBP did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Rep. Mark Green, R.-Tenn., told Danaher that her conclusions that the children's deaths were preventable if CBP had done more were unfair and politically biased.

"The standard of care at Mass General on a given day will never be comparable to triaging 160 migrants in the dark of the night," Green said.

The Government Accountability Office released a report ahead of the hearing indicating that CBP has not implemented medical care policies consistently across its facilities at the southwest border.

"GAO found that some locations were not consistently conducting health interviews and medical assessments, as required by the medical directives," the report said

CBP also spent money allocated for medical care on other purposes, such as dog food, dirt bikes and speakers, the report found.

The Inspector General for DHS, Joseph Cuffari, reached a different conclusion about the deaths of Caal and Gomez Alonzo.

"Both of our investigations determined that all CBP employees who were involved did everything possible to ensure both children received medical treatment. Our investigations did not find misconduct or malfeasance on the part of any CBP personnel."

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D.-Miss., the committee chair, said the Inspector General should have looked beyond answering whether there had been misconduct or malfeasance.

"The [Inspector General] reports fail to examine the many troubling questions that these deaths raise regarding CBP’s ability to care for children in custody, including questions about the adequacy of the agency’s policies, procedures, and training," Thompson said in his opening statement Wednesday. "Further, while the Inspector General’s office certainly conducted many interviews, it appears that key documents and evidence were not collected and reviewed."