Dr. Scott Allen and Dr. Pamela McPherson were used to working behind the scenes, quietly documenting the devastating things they’d seen.
Children’s fingers crushed by cell doors. A boy who’d lost nearly a third of his body weight in a matter of days. Incorrect vaccine doses and missed diagnoses.
Each incident, the doctors say, was meticulously noted in reports they filed with the US Department of Homeland Security. Allen and McPherson – an internist and a psychiatrist – are expert consultants contracted by the department’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.
Their mission: inspecting the facilities where US Immigration and Customs Enforcement detains immigrant families.
For years, the doctors’ expert opinions, like the facilities they inspected, remained out of the spotlight – unseen by most lawmakers and unheard by members of the public.
That changed, they say, when the Trump administration’s policies left them no choice. The doctors became whistleblowers, speaking out with a dire warning. Family detention isn’t safe, they said, and children’s lives are at stake.
“We are writing to you, members of Congress with oversight responsibility, because we have a duty to raise our concerns about the ongoing and future threat of harm to children posed by the current and proposed expansion of the family detention program,” the doctors said in a letter to the leaders of the Senate Whistleblower Protection Caucus.
Their new mission: Showing the world why immigrant family detention should be stopped.
“Detention of innocent children should never occur in a civilized society, especially if there are less restrictive options, because the risk of harm to children simply cannot be justified,” they wrote.
That letter was sent nearly a year ago. And writing it changed their lives.
But family detention wasn’t scaled back after they spoke out.
On numerous occasions since that day they sent the letter in July 2018, the administration has laid the groundwork for policies that would increase the number of detained immigrant families. In a recent budget request, the White House asked for funding for 960 additional family detention beds – an increase that would nearly double the number of people housed in one family detention facility in south Texas.
And for Allen and McPherson, what started with one letter to Congress has become a quest with no end in sight.
“Each passing day of continued detention of children – and no acknowledgment of the risk that we have reported – alarms me even more,” Allen told CNN in a recent interview.
What they witnessed
When the pair began conducting inspections of ICE family detention centers in 2014, they were far from new to the justice system. Allen, who runs a clinic for adults with developmental disabilities in California, is a former medical director for the Rhode Island Department of Corrections. McPherson, a child and adolescent psychiatrist as well as a forensic psychiatrist in Shreveport, Louisiana, has worked in juvenile detention facilities for three decades.
Still, they were surprised and troubled by what they found in the 10 inspections they conducted together at ICE family detention facilities in several states.
Allen and McPherson say they documented their concerns numerous times in reports filed with the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration, and felt like the people in power were listening. But they say two things prompted them to speak more publicly about the matter after Trump took office: the spike in family separations at the border and moves to increase family detention rather than scale it back.
“There were rumblings that family detention was going to be increased greatly,” McPherson says. “Just the idea that things that we had seen would be magnified and multiplied called us to action.”
In their letter to Congress last year, the doctors detailed particularly troubling cases that they said represent systemic problems that would only get worse if family detention expands:
• Significant weight loss in children that went largely unnoticed by the facility medical staff, including a 16-month-old baby who lost nearly a third of his body weight over 10 days during a diarrheal disease but was never given IV fluids or sent to an emergency room.
• A 27-day-old baby who had a seizure from bleeding inside his skull that was missed by the facility on arrival.
• Numerous children who suffered severe finger injuries while confined in a facility that was designed as a medium-security prison for adults.
“That one really bothered me,” Allen says, describing how they uncovered the pattern by combing through the charts of children who’d been taken to the emergency room.
“These are shattered fingers, significant lacerations – probably some of the injuries disfiguring. And you start to think about how they’re happening. And they’re these heavy, spring-loaded doors in a facility that was constructed to have adult males … and the light bulb goes on that this is a complete disaster,” he says. “Because they’re using cells, but they paint them pretty colors and they now call them dorm rooms. But it’s got the same door.”
Once the problem was pointed out, he says, officials were still slow to correct it – something that Allen says was “very discouraging to see.”
“Somewhere out there there’s kids walking around with disfigured fingers for the rest of their life,” he says, “because no one could really get their act together to fix that problem.”
It’s just one example, the doctors say, of how family detention endangers children. They stress that doesn’t mean staff inside the facilities aren’t trying to do the right thing.
“This is not a story about people in these facilities not caring about children. … It is about good people trying to keep children safe in an environment that’s very dangerous to them by design, if not intent. And they’ve been asked to execute deeply flawed and I would even say mean-spirited policies, and to do so in such a way that minimizes harms to children,” Allen says. “It’s an impossible task.”