First, the players in this story: Dr. Scott Allen runs a clinic for adults with developmental disabilities in California and is a former medical director for the Rhode Island Department of Corrections. Dr. Pamela McPherson is a child and adolescent psychiatrist as well as a forensic psychiatrist in Shreveport, Louisiana; she's worked in juvenile detention facilities for three decades.
And then there’s the U.S. Department of Homeland Security—DHS.
THE ASSIGNMENT Second, the setup: DHS asked Drs. Allen and McPherson to look into detention facilities in Pennsylvania, Texas, and New Mexico, to report on how migrant families were being treated. Thousands of these families—including, of course, children—are living in such facilities. In all, the doctors conducted 10 inspections.
Third, the observations: Allen and McPherson saw significant weight loss in children, incorrect doses of vaccines, fingers lacerated and crushed by cell doors, and missed diagnoses, including that of a 27-day-old baby who had a seizure from bleeding inside his skull. These observations disturbed them deeply.
McPherson says that, “Trauma can really have a lasting impact on a child’s development. . . . Detaining children can also damage the bond between the parent and child because in a detention setting, the parent's authority is weakened by the rules and the oversight of the facility.”
Allen adds, “There are kids walking around with disfigured fingers for the rest of their life, because no one could really get their act together to fix that problem.”
Fourth, the actions the doctors took: after Allen and McPherson reported their findings to DHS, they saw no progress. In fact, things were going backward: The Trump administration was rapidly increasing family detentions and child separations.
DECIDING TO GO ROGUE
They had a decision to make: Should they risk their careers by going public with what they’d seen? Should they risk blowback from their peers as well as the government by exposing conditions that hitherto had been undisclosed? Trump supporters have threatened people who oppose him with physical harm and even death. McPherson recalls why they spoke out anyway, “Just the idea that things that we had seen would be magnified and multiplied called us to action.”
They presented their observations and their concerns to the Senate Whistleblower Caucus: “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. . . 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. . . . The practice of detaining children and families is no longer an issue of policy dispute. It is a willful policy that knowingly inflicts serious harm to children, including risk of death.”
THE ACTIONS THEY CHALLENGED INCREASE
The government no longer asks Allen or McPherson to inspect family detention facilities. And federal agencies have stepped up family detention policies; the 2020 federal budget includes funding for even more facilities for separated families.
STILL SPEAKING FOR THE CHILDREN
The doctors remain committed to the cause. “We are not going away, and we are leaving a clear record that we've put everyone on notice that we possibly can,” says Allen. “Our goal is to protect children. But if we fail them, we sure as hell want to leave a written record for history that documents who is notified of an impending harm to children—and who did nothing about it.
“At some point, there is the question of, why are we doing this as a country? Why are we putting innocent children in harm's way?