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Official concedes 8-year-old who died in U.S. custody could have been saved as devastated family recalls final days

Migrant child dies in Border Patrol custody
Probe reveals Customs and Border Protection failed to protect migrant child who died in May 06:31

The life of a migrant girl who died in Border Patrol custody in May could have been saved if she had been treated differently while in U.S. custody, a government official conceded to CBS News, raising further questions about the child's death, which her parents say stemmed from negligence and discrimination.

Anadith Danay Reyes Alvarez, who was 8 years old, died in Border Patrol custody on May 17 after spending over a week in detention facilities where staff dismissed or downplayed her complaints of pain and declined to take her to the hospital multiple times, according to her family and preliminary government reports. The family was also held for over a week, despite agency rules that generally limit detention to 72 hours.

Her death, the first known instance of a child dying in Border Patrol custody under the Biden administration, triggered a federal investigation, an internal review of medical practices at Customs and Border Protection and intense criticism from advocates who say it illustrates broader problems with how migrants are treated by the U.S. 

On Tuesday, an independent federal court monitor called Anadith's death "clearly preventable" and a result of "a series of failures" by government staff and contractors, who he found failed to closely monitor her deteriorating health, despite her sickle cell anemia and heart condition. The District Attorney in Cameron County, Texas, has also launched a criminal probe into potential child neglect that could lead to "possible prosecution," according to documents from that office obtained by CBS News.

"I know my daughter would still be with me"

An undated photo shows Anadith Danay Reyes Alvarez, who died in Border Patrol custody.
An undated photo shows Anadith Danay Reyes Alvarez, who died in Border Patrol custody. Courtesy of the Alvarez family

In an interview with CBS News, Anadith's parents said their desperate pleas for government staff and contractors to help their sick daughter and take her to the emergency room were ignored and, in some cases, met with indifference and skepticism.

"A Border Patrol agent didn't believe me. He stood in front of my daughter and told her, 'Tell me how you can't breathe because a girl that can't breathe would be passing out and you're not passing out, you're fine,' he told my daughter," Anadith's mother, Mabel Alvarez, told CBS News' Lilia Luciano.

Speaking in Spanish, Alvarez said she felt her pleas were treated like "a joke."

Both parents, now living in New York with their other children, said their daughter's life could have been saved had officials heeded their concerns. "Had they called the ambulance sooner I know my daughter would still be with me," Alvarez said. 

"When they finally wanted to call the ambulance, the ambulance took about five minutes," she added. "That's when I realized how close the hospital was to us and that they could've done something."

A top CBP official, whom the agency allowed to speak to CBS News about Anadith's case and the ongoing internal probe under the condition of anonymity, conceded that poor decision-making by staff and systemic flaws within the agency's medical system contributed to her death.

"It is my clinical opinion that were she treated differently that she would be alive today," the CBP official said.

Alexander Eastman, a government doctor who was named acting chief medical officer at CBP after the girl's death and is tasked with preventing similar tragedies, acknowledged that "many parts" of the agency's system "did not function as designed to protect Anadith."

CBP, Eastman told CBS News, is "correcting and steering the system against those errors or deficiencies being able to occur again."

Anadith's parents said they believe they were ill-treated and ignored while in U.S. custody because they are Afro-Honduran and Black. "Everything they did to my family was discrimination," Alvarez said. "There's no other word for it. You can search everywhere for an excuse but they discriminated against me for the color of my skin."

In response to prior allegations of racial discrimination, CBP has said "there's no room in the agency for discrimination or intolerance."

Rossel Reyes, Anadith's father, said one of the main causes of his heartache is the recognition that his daughter will never be able to achieve her dream of becoming a doctor.

"Sometimes I wish this was all a dream, but I wake up and then I don't see my daughter. It's not easy," Reyes told CBS News.

The family of Anadith Danay Reyes Alvarez mourns at her burial. Courtesy of the Alvarez family

"I can't breathe"

Like hundreds of thousands of other migrants this year, Anadith, who was born in Panama, journeyed north to the U.S. with her parents and older siblings in search of a better life.

The family reached the U.S.-Mexico border in early May. They were first processed by Border Patrol agents on May 9 after crossing into the U.S. near Brownsville, Texas. The family was initially taken to an outdoor processing area, where they spent the night. They were taken to a tent holding facility in Donna, Texas, the next day, according to government officials.

Despite her pre-existing health conditions, Anadith was fine when she entered U.S. custody, her parents said. But her health began to deteriorate after a few days in detention, according to her family and preliminary government reports.

Anadith had abdominal pain, nasal congestion and a cough, and on May 14 tested positive for the flu. She was given some medication and the family was then transferred to another facility, a Border Patrol station in Harlingen, Texas. She was placed in isolation with her mother and sister.

At the Harlingen station, Anadith was seen by medical staff at least nine times. She was still in pain, and her fever reached a high of 104.9 degrees on May 16, according to CBP officials. Medical contractors gave her Tamiflu, fever medication, ice packs and a cold shower. But she was not taken to a hospital, despite multiple requests from Anadith and Alvarez, her mother.

Alvarez said she lost count of the number of times she asked for help.

"They told me no," Alvarez said. "They wouldn't call an ambulance until she passed out — not before."

After one of her pleas, Alvarez said, Anadith herself tried to impress upon facility staff that she was suffering. "My daughter said, 'I'm getting a little strength just to explain I can't breathe. Not in my mouth nor my nose,'" Alvarez recounted.

At one point, Reyes, Anadith's father, remembered seeing his daughter visibly distraught and in distress. He was in another area of the facility that held males, but said he could detect her pain.

"My daughter turned to me and in that moment I said to myself, my daughter is saying, 'Daddy, I can't go on. They killed me. I can't go on.' She just looked at me and she was gone," Reyes said.

A nurse contractor at the Harlingen station admitted to denying at least three requests to send Anadith to the hospital. CBP investigators also found that medical contractors failed to contact an on-call pediatrician and to properly document and review Anadith's medical visits and history.

Anadith was only transferred to a hospital a few minutes away from the Harlingen station after having a seizure and collapsing. She was pronounced dead at the hospital soon after. But Alvarez said her daughter died in her arms inside the Border Patrol station.

"No one is going to argue that with me because I was carrying her and mothers know," Alvarez said.

Anadith Danay Reyes Alvarez's casket.
Anadith Danay Reyes Alvarez's casket. Courtesy of the Alvarez family

It's unclear why facility staff refused to transfer Anadith to a hospital earlier. But the independent court monitor who reviewed her death said he had heard general concerns from Border Patrol officials about the operational "drain" involved in transferring migrants to hospitals.

Medical experts said Anadith should've been transferred to a hospital quickly, regardless of the reasons for not doing so earlier.

"If that child was being seen in my practice, and had the medical history that she had and the symptoms that were described, in my practice, we would have sent that child to the emergency room into the hospital for care," Sandy Chung, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told CBS News.

Guerline Jozef, president of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, a group that serves Black migrants, said Anadith's death illustrates that the Biden administration is not living up to its commitment to have a "humane" process for migrants. Her group is currently helping the girl's family find permanent housing in New York.

"We believed in that promise. But that hasn't been the case," Jozef said. "And we do understand that the administration inherited a very broken system, but we also believe that we, as the United States, can create ways to protect people and welcome people with dignity and compassion."

Acting CBP Commissioner Troy Miller has called Anadith's death "tragic" and "unacceptable." In June, he ordered officials to make sure medically vulnerable migrants are released from the agency's custody expeditiously. CBP has also cut ties with contractors involved in the ongoing investigation by the agency's Office of Professional Responsibility, which can take disciplinary action and issue criminal referrals.

"While we cannot change the tragic outcome in this situation, as an agency, we must and will do better to ensure that this does not happen again," Miller said in a statement. "The health and safety of individuals in our custody, our workforce, and our communities are — and must be — paramount."

Anadith's death has devastated her parents. But they said they've found some solace in remembering their daughter's happinesses, kindness, ambitious dreams and larger-than-life smile.

Reyes said he fondly remembers when Anadith would jump on his bed to play and eat popcorn. His daughter's most extraordinary trait, he said, was her desire to help others in need. 

Alvarez said she misses her daughter's kisses and hugs.

"It's still difficult for me," Alvarez said. "I miss her at night. I remember her as a loving child. She dreamed of so many things. She had big dreams for herself."

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