Whistleblowers Warn Of Harmful Conditions For Children In Migrant Detention Centers
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to go back now to one of the most contentious issues facing this administration - the large numbers of would-be migrant families remaining in detention centers. While the Trump administration says it has abandoned its policy of separating migrant parents and children at the border, thousands of families are still in detention, putting their children at grave risk of physical and emotional harm. This is according to two doctors who have inspected the facilities for the Department of Homeland Security. They are Dr. Scott Allen, a specialist in internal medicine from Riverside, Calif., and Dr. Pamela McPherson, a child psychiatrist in Shreveport, La.
They both had extensive prior experience working in detention settings when DHS asked them to look into facilities in three states - Pennsylvania, Texas and New Mexico. They were so disturbed by what they saw, they wrote a letter to the U.S. Senate Whistleblower Protection Caucus. In it, they documented serious medical neglect.
When I spoke with them the other day, Dr. Allen told me that poor treatment was not necessarily because staff at the facilities weren't trying or didn't care.
SCOTT ALLEN: Rather, it was a result of the facilities not having adequately trained professionals. Particularly, there were shortage of pediatricians, especially early on. So that what was happening is that children with significant illness were presenting to the health care providers who were trying to provide their care, but they were missing some of the most basic things about pediatric care. For example, one of the basic vital signs that clinicians follow in young children is their weight. And, in particular, if a child is presenting with a diarrheal disease, you follow that weight quite closely.
In the first facility we visited, we came upon a 18-month-old infant, a toddler who had been presenting at least eight or 10 times over a 10-day period to health care complaining - the mother complaining of the baby's diarrhea and was sent away repeatedly with reassurance and no particular intervention while the medical record shows the baby lost a third of his body weight under the care of these clinicians.
MARTIN: I'm just following up on the point that you just made, that this isn't necessarily malintent (ph). It's that people weren't necessarily trained to deal with children. You identify another facility that accidentally vaccinated numerous children with adult doses of vaccine as a result of poor interagency coordination and the unfamiliarity of the providers with pediatric dosing. And to your larger point about the - just the conditions in detention more broadly, you said that you found that severe child finger injuries, including lacerations and fractures, because the doors were so heavy. To your point, you're saying this is not a matter of intent, but this is the result.
ALLEN: Well, I'd say at the local level in the facilities, it's not a result of malintent. But we have to back up and say, why are we doing this in the first place? We would say that the policy of detaining innocent children as part of our immigration program is entirely unnecessary and unjustifiable because of these logistical problems that we're describing, but also that it's well-known in the medical community that the detention of children is harmful to their health. So 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?
MARTIN: I asked child psychiatrist Dr. McPherson about the psychological impact of detention on the migrant children. She told me that she's worried that when they enter the facilities, they are not always screened for trauma.
PAMELA MCPHERSON: So the concern that we have is that trauma can really have a lasting impact on a child's development. It can include impairment in the developmental milestones, thinking, emotional regulation and even the ability to form healthy relationships. Trauma may cause some children to regress and lose skills, or it may cause other children to mature too quickly and take on adult behaviors too early.
MARTIN: Do these psychological effects still occur when children are detained with parents? I mean, certainly, as you know, this is one proposal that the administration has made.
MCPHERSON: Yes. The concern is that because the effects of trauma are cumulative, placing children in high-stress situations where they don't have the supports of their community, extended family, church, regular schools, where they're in a different culture, this is very stressful. And this traumatic stress can lead to ongoing difficulties for children. 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.
MARTIN: So what made you finally decide to write to the Senate Whistleblower Caucus?
ALLEN: Well, we had worked within the system for four years. And in the initial period, although things weren't perfect, we felt that we at least had some agency and there was some response to our concerns. However, there was a turning point this past summer that was actually fairly public. And we watched as you all did with the news reports coming out about the child separation policy. And, quite frankly, we watched in horror.
And at that point, there were also reports that family detention would be rapidly expanded. So we had unique knowledge that this was an imminent threat to the health and safety of children. And as professionals, we had an obligation to try to do something about it.
MARTIN: That was Dr. Scott Allen, who specializes in internal medicine, and Dr. Pamela McPherson, a child psychiatrist. After inspecting family detention centers for migrants for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, they raised their concerns with the U.S. Senate. As whistleblowers, they are now represented by the Government Accountability Project. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
ALLEN: Thank you.
MCPHERSON: Thank you, Michel. It was a pleasure.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.