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U.S. Customs and Border Protection investigation finds multiple failings in the death of 8-year-old girl in federal custody

A border patrol vehicle on the banks of the Rio Grande in Rio Grande City.
Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune
A border patrol vehicle on the banks of the Rio Grande in Rio Grande City.

An internal investigation conducted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection found that contracted personnel working at a federal border station in South Texas failed to contact doctors while an 8-year-old was having a medical emergency in May, according to a statement Thursday from the federal agency.

The girl later died after medical professionals repeatedly denied the mother’s request that her daughter be taken to a hospital.

The ongoing investigation found that medical personnel at Harlingen Station, where the girl and her family were in custody, failed to document multiple encounters with the child and were not aware of her previously documented medical history.

CBP acting Commissioner Troy Miller said in a statement Thursday that the in-custody death was “deeply upsetting” and an “unacceptable tragedy.”

“We can — and we will — do better to ensure this never happens again,” he said.

In an interview with the Associated Press, the girl’s mother was identified as Mabel Alvarez Benedicks of Honduras. She and her husband crossed the border into Brownsville with their three children, ages 8, 12 and 14, on May 9, more than a week before their youngest child died.

According to the investigation — which was conducted through interviews with contracted personnel and Border Patrol agents — personnel said they did not know the girl’s complicated medical history. However, CBP reports show that the family did inform the agency of her chronic conditions of sickle cell anemia and heart disease when they arrived at a processing facility in Donna on May 10. She had been born with a congenital heart disease in Panama.

Between May 14 and 17, the dates when the girl was in custody at the Harlingen border station, medical personnel had nine interactions with the girl and her mother, according to the investigation. Staff had only reported three. The investigation cites a malfunctioning closed-circuit television recording system at the facility.

While the girl was in custody at the border station, she complained of stomach aches, nausea, difficulty breathing, fever, flu-like symptoms and pain.

On the morning of May 17, the nurse practitioner caring for the girl reported that the child had normal vital signs and administered treatment for nausea.

Alvarez Benedicks made at least three additional requests to the nurse practitioner for an ambulance. Those requests were denied.

Later that day, just before 2 p.m., Alvarez Benedicks returned to the health unit carrying her daughter, who appeared to be having a seizure. The mother and her daughter were transported in separate vehicles to Harligen’s Valley Baptist Medical Center 2 miles away. Less than an hour later, the child was dead.

Miller said that in the wake of the tragedy, the federal agency has taken several measures to avoid more in-custody deaths.

He said CBP has prioritized medically fragile individuals and families so that they can spend less time in custody. The agency also requested additional medical professionals from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to assist at multiple CBP sites.

Additionally, the federal law enforcement agency barred the contracted medical providers involved in this incident from working with CBP in the future.

The agency said it has since repaired the video surveillance system at Harlingen Station.

DISCLOSURE: Valley Baptist Medical Center has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism.

William Melhado is a Poynter-Koch fellow for 2022-23 and a general assignment reporter on The Texas Tribune’s breaking news team.