CBP reassigns chief medical officer after child’s death in border custody

The Department of Homeland Security has removed the top medical official at U.S. Customs and Border Protection amid a broader investigation into the death of an 8-year-old girl in U.S. custody last month at a border station in Harlingen , Tex.

David Tarantino, CBP’s medical director, has been reassigned, according to agency officials.

“As CBP works to implement needed improvements to our health care policies and processes, including the ongoing investigation into the tragic in-custody death of a child in Harlingen, we are bringing in additional senior leadership to drive the “agency-wide action,” CBP said. he said in a statement to The Washington Post.

The minor, Anadith Tanay Reyes Álvarez, died on May 17 after spending four days in a Border Patrol medical isolation unit where she was not seen by a doctor even though her flu symptoms worsened and she had history of sickle cell anemia and heart problems.

Homeland Security investigators have been looking into claims that contracted medical staff at the facility failed to review Reyes’ medical files and failed to provide him with more advanced care even after his fever reached 104 .9 degrees Fahrenheit. The investigation into Reyes’ death has been complicated by the fact that the station’s closed-circuit camera system was not working while she was there.

Border officials say they have raised their standards of care in recent years amid a record number of crossings by families and children whose needs are not suited to holding cells designed for adults. CBP established its chief medical officer role in 2020 after the deaths of several children caught at the border during a record surge of migrant families in 2018 and 2019.

The agency says it has built 11 facilities with dedicated space for medical triage and basic care, as well as isolation areas for communicable diseases. More than 1,000 medical personnel have been hired to provide care at border stations and other CBP facilities, according to the agency.

Tarantino, who led CBP’s medical operations during the coronavirus pandemic, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. He will be given a temporary assignment to DHS starting next week, officials said.

CBP policy directs agents to process migrants within 72 hours for transfer to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement or another agency, giving priority to families and children. Reyes was in custody eight days before she died, according to a CBP timeline of the incident.

Born in Panama to Honduran parents, the girl crossed into the United States with her family on May 9. During an initial CBP medical examination, Reyes’ mother provided the agency with documents and information about the boy’s sensitive medical history.

On May 14, Reyes was diagnosed with the flu after complaining of abdominal pain, cough and congestion. “During this medical encounter, CBP contracted medical personnel documented a past medical history including cardiomyopathy,” according to the agency.

The family was transferred to the medical isolation unit at the Border Patrol station in Harlingen that day. As the girl’s flu symptoms worsened over several days, nurses at the facility treated her with over-the-counter pain relievers and antiviral medications.

Reyes’ mother, Mabel Alvarez Benedicks, took her to medical personnel for treatment three times on May 17, CBP records show. The girl became unresponsive after having a seizure and was taken to a nearby hospital, where she was pronounced dead less than an hour later. An autopsy by a county pathologist found Reyes’ lungs had filled with fluid.

Reyes “cried and begged for her life” as she grew sicker, but the staff “did nothing for her,” her mother told The Associated Press in an interview. A funeral for the girl will be held Saturday in New York City, according to legal aid groups assisting the family.

The medical contractor, Loyal Source Government Services LLC., received a $408 million contract from CBP in 2020, public records show. The Florida-based company did not respond to an inquiry about the status of the employees who treated Reyes.

Rep. Nanette Barragán, (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said in a statement this month that she was “at a complete loss for words after learning that medical staff refused to review the medical file and ignored multiple requests from Anadith’s mother to call for an ambulance or to take her to hospital.”

“Anadith and her mother had multiple encounters with medical personnel due to fever, flu-like symptoms and pain,” Barragán said. “However, he was not given the higher level of care that someone with serious health complications needs.”

After Reyes’ death, CBP officials announced a review of all “medically fragile” migrants in custody, and the agency said it has cut in half the time family groups are detained.

The agency has deployed a team of US Public Health Service physicians to provide “additional medical guidance and oversight capacity,” according to CBP.

Officials said they have ordered the medical contractor to “review its practices and address deficiencies immediately,” and providers who were involved in the incident have been banned from CBP facilities.

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