MEDICINE@BROWN: Moral Authority

Two physicians with a record of calling out medical wrongdoing question why more doctors don’t.

artistic rendering of two doctors in front of a chain link fence

In 2014, internist Scott Allen MD’91 RES’94 was working as a consultant for the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, part of the Department of Homeland Security. Charged with investigating complaints filed by the public regarding DHS actions, CRCL had recruited Allen to conduct inspections of its adult immigration detention facilities.

That summer, when the Obama administration began detaining asylum-seeking mothers and children in a facility in Artesia, NM, as part of a plan to deter immigrants from Central America, complaints came flooding in. CRCL sent Allen and Pamela McPherson, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist from Louisiana who was also a government contractor, to investigate.

What they found was deeply troubling.

In addition to widespread weight loss among the children, they discovered a 16-month-old baby who had lost one-third of his weight due to a diarrheal illness. For more than a week the child’s mother had sought medical attention but had not been offered appropriate treatment—despite the fact that a 10-percent weight loss would normally trigger emergency measures, including administration of IV fluids. In the absence of adequate pediatric care, the infant’s condition had gone unnoticed. The baby was on the verge of dying of dehydration.

“We were disturbed by how dangerous this place was,” Allen says. “We said, ‘You almost lost a baby. You gotta shut this place down.’” Within two weeks, DHS quietly closed the Artesia facility. (Two more facilities were built soon after, in Texas.)

Through the final years of the Obama administration, Allen and McPherson carried out 10 more inspections of immigration family detention centers and filed detailed internal reports to DHS on each one, documenting myriad harms to children, from receiving adult doses of vaccines to having their fingers crushed by heavy spring-loaded doors. But once Donald Trump took office in 2017, Allen recalls, “the phones stopped ringing.” The two experts assumed they wouldn’t be called on again.

Read the full story on the Medicine@Brown website.

Medicine@Brown: Moral Authority