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Preventing Harm to Migrant Children in Detention: A Case Study of Collaboration Between Health Whistleblowers, Professional Associations, & Public Interest Organizations


Gabriel Twose, representative to the Coalition Council for the American Psychological Association


  • Speaker
    • Dana Gold, Senior Counsel & Director of Education, Government Accountability Project 
  • Overview of Government Accountability Project
    • The Government Accountability Project was founded in 1977 to protect the public interest by promoting government and corporate accountability through litigating whistleblower cases, publicizing whistleblowers’ disclosures and developing legal reforms. More than just protecting whistleblowers, the organization leverages their information to make a societal difference. 
  • Work on DHS (Department of Homeland Security’s) Child Separation Policy
    • Following ProPublica’s leaked audio of children in cages crying, the Government Accountability Project placed an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle about the rights of employees to obey illegal orders. As a result of this op-ed, the Government Accountability Project was contacted by Drs. Pamela McPherson & Scott Allen from DHS’ Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. Drs. McPherson and Allen were concerned that following public pressure against family separation, the Administration’s response was likely to be indefinitely detaining families together, which would be extremely harmful in and of itself. In addition to the harms of prolonged unjustified imprisonment, facilities lacked doctors, translators, and sufficient training.  
    • Drs. McPherson and Allen had signed nondisclosure agreements as DHS contractors, so were concerned about the repercussions of writing their own op-ed to publicize what they saw as harmful policies at detention facilities. The Government Accountability Project counseled them that nondisclosure agreements do not supersede whistleblower rights, but that an op-ed might not be their most effective strategy. Rather, they advised them to make a more substantial disclosure by filing complaints with the DHS Inspector General and the United States Congress. 
    • The Congressional disclosure was leaked to the media and received a lot of traction. Once the information was in the public eye, the Government Accountability Project worked with the American College of Physicians to galvanize their members to write letters to their elected officials supporting Drs. McPherson and Allen.
    • Other professional associations also expressed their support, including one notable July 24, 2018 letter signed by the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, the American Nurses Association, and other large groups. The Government Accountability Project also worked with a number of immigration justice organizations to support the whistleblowers. 
    • Boosted by the support of so many professional and public interest organizations, Drs. McPherson and Allen decided to publicly elevate their concerns, appearing on 60 Minutes on November 26, 2018. This appearance was not quite as protected as their earlier disclosures, but the Government Accountability Project advised that they were insulated by the fact that the scope of their disclosures was already in the public eye. Further elevating their profile, Senators Merkley and Hirono then invited the whistleblowers to join a congressional delegation to the border. 
  • Outcomes
    • Drs. McPherson and Allen have not suffered any reprisals for their brave stance. On the contrary, they have received the Ridenhour Prize and have been honored by Physicians for Human Rights. Moreover, other whistleblowers have been inspired to come forward with their own stories. For example, Ellen Gallagher has spoken about DHS’ use of solitary confinement. 


Key Points/Takeaways:

  • Whistleblowers are needed to ensure that atrocities are not swept under the rug, and professional support means a lot to those who come forward.
  • AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition could play an important role in organizing webinars on how professional associations can support whistleblowers, spreading this message to a wide variety of scientists.



  • Immigration
  • Whistleblower
  • Congress
  • Media
  • United States


Additional Resources: