Faith in Truth: A Whistleblower’s Story

LaSalle Corrections, a private company that runs Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities throughout Georgia, Texas, and Louisiana, has a long track record of human rights violations. Fortunately for the detainees at its Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC) in Ocilla, Georgia, a brave whistleblower came forward to reveal the truth about dangerous conditions and invasive health practices at that facility. That whistleblower is Dawn Wooten, a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN), who worked at ICDC.

 

Like most whistleblowers, Ms. Wooten first raised her concerns internally, reporting systemic failure to provide appropriate and adequate medical care to immigrant detainees at ICDC. Yet her internal reporting was dismissed and she was met with retaliation. Deeply concerned about what she had witnessed, she made the brave and difficult choice to go public. Her disclosures, in addition to practices that endangered immigrants, workers, and the public with the spread of COVID-19 in ICE detention, also included explosive reports that female detainees were victims of hysterectomies and other gynecologic procedures without fully informed consent. The news captured the nation’s attention, inciting passionate calls for reform from immigration justice organizations, medical professionals, and members of Congress.

Ms. Wooten’s story, of a loyal employee who witnessed misconduct and coverup in the workplace and chose to speak up rather than stay silent, is the story of almost every whistleblower. Employees are driven by professional duty and moral calling to tell the truth, prevent harm, and secure justice. This moral call is often rooted in or informed by one’s faith or religious tradition.

While focus on the content of disclosures and adverse professional consequences experienced by whistleblowers take front row, less discussed is the important role religious advisors and faith communities play in whistleblowers’ experiences, often sustaining whistleblowers and their families through their difficult personal journey. 

Ms. Wooten’s faith was essential in her decision to tell the truth about abuses to which she bore witness. She was raised in the church by her grandmother and was taught from the time she was a little girl to live the principle shared by all major faiths to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Ms. Wooten says her faith, her pastor, and her church community provided her with support she needed to stay strong and centered in the whirl of public attention, pursuit of redress for the problems she disclosed, and the retaliation she experienced for her truth-telling. Her story illustrates the crucial role faith can play for whistleblowers, and thus for all of us who benefit from their acts of moral courage as they bend us toward the arc of justice. 

 

Government Accountability Project’s new faith initiative, Bearing Witness, has been created specifically for faith leaders, clergy, and faith communities and organizations nationwide, offering free resources to help them responsibility and effectively support the brave whistleblowers in their midst, and to connect them to pro bono legal support. And Ms. Wooten adds, "You can never go wrong with prayer.”

We invite you to learn more about Dawn Wooten’s story.

 

Trouble at Irwin

Ms. Wooten’s employment at the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC) was supposed to be a standard “8 to 5, Monday through Friday” shift, but she often worked longer hours and was almost always called in on weekends. She first became aware of a potential issue at ICDC in July 2016, when a 23-year-old woman confided her concerns about a gynecologic procedure that had been performed on her, and now she could no longer bear children. Ms. Wooten asked why she thought she could no longer have children. The young woman said ICDC had sent her to a gynecologist to remove an ovarian cyst, but she believed a hysterectomy had been performed instead. She was having trouble getting her complete medical records — portions appeared to be missing — and Ms. Wooten’s efforts to track down the records for the detainee were fruitless. At the time, Ms. Wooten saw this as an isolated allegation and did not think to report it. A couple weeks later, she left ICDC to continue her nursing education.  

 

The young woman’s story at ICDC continued to weigh heavily on her heart and mind, and as time passed, Ms. Wooten felt what she describes as a “spiritual nudging” to return. When Ms. Wooten told her pastor she was returning after four years, she responded, “The Lord is leading you back to this place and I don’t know what for, but He is leading you back for a reason.” 

 

That reason soon started to reveal itself. Female immigrant detainees at ICDC began to share amongst themselves, and then with Ms. Wooten, their concerns over inappropriate gynecological care and the almost unbelievable allegation that unnecessary hysterectomies were being performed without consent. Women were being sent to the doctor, four to five at a time, and when they returned, many would come to Ms. Wooten for help getting their medical records. Just like the young woman in 2016, they suspected that pieces of their medical records were missing, and many women could not figure out what procedure had really been performed on them. 

 

By January of 2020, the gynecologist’s reputation among detainees was so bad that one woman asked her if he was “collecting uteruses.” Ms. Wooten was horrified. The doctor became known as the “uterus collector” among the female detainees. Indeed, that same month, Dawn recalls being in a room with her supervisors and a fellow nurse when this issue was discussed. Not only were her supervisors aware of the allegations, they immediately dropped the subject. By May, Dawn seemed to be the only one still pursuing it. 

 

On top of these disturbing disclosures, by March the staff and detainees were suddenly faced with the dangers of COVID-19, and the facility’s complete disregard for CDC guidelines to control spread of the coronavirus. Ms. Wooten recalls that her managers and other staff members denied care to detainees who had COVID-19 symptoms and refused to test or effectively quarantine them. When detainees spoke up, they were put in solitary confinement as punishment. With the absence of PPE and inability to social distance, many feared for their lives, including Ms. Wooten. As an immunocompromised single mother of five, ICDC’s reckless actions put her and her children in jeopardy, and the general public, too.

 

Meanwhile, immigrant women continued to come forward to her with harrowing allegations of abusive gynecological care; she felt a heavy weight and an overwhelming sense of empathy rooted by her faith. When she finally asked one of the women why everyone was coming to her, she was told, “We heard about you. We heard if you want anything done, go to Ms. Wooten.” She thought to herself, “OK, this is the ninth person, I have to do something, I have to say something.” She started to pray, “God, if this is what you want me to do, open the door. Make an avenue. If this is where you are landing me, putting me in this great vast place, I know you have me under guard and I know you will make provisions for me. Please, open the door.” 

 

That door opened as the situation quickly escalated. 

 

The allegations of procedures performed without informed consent, and the lack of medical records, rapidly grew from about 10 women in January, to 12, then 15, until more than 20 women had come forward to Ms. Wooten. Ms. Wooten also knew that the other nurses and her supervisors were too afraid to escalate it for fear of losing their jobs. Meanwhile, Ms. Wooten had spoken up internally multiple times about ICDC’s reckless COVID-19 policies, but her concerns were disregarded. She recalls that around May 2020 “things started to get ugly” for her in terms of retaliation. 

 

When she had to miss work because she was displaying COVID-19 symptoms, she provided her employer with doctors’ notes but was reprimanded by management, violating ICDC’s own policies. She also tried to warn officers who were about to be in contact with a detained individual with COVID-19, in order to ensure they followed proper protocol to protect themselves. She was again reprimanded and told that warning other staff about COVID-19 cases was not her job. The next day she was demoted from having regularly scheduled shifts to an “as-needed” nurse (without scheduled shifts) without any proper explanation or adequate justification.

 

Spiritual Confirmation

Ms. Wooten’s healthcare career spans 10 years, and for the last eight of those, she also served as a pastor’s aide and assisted as a minister. She was called to ministry at a very young age, eventually returning to obtain a minister’s license in 2012, which she believes has helped her navigate the spiritual challenges of her decision to come forward as a whistleblower. Her deep faith provided spiritual confirmation through prayer: “God, this is your will, forcing me out. This is your way of saying, you need me to be a voice for those who don’t have a voice and you need me to have faith for those that are faithless.” 

 

She found further spiritual affirmation through a coworker, a nurse who called to tell her, “I’m very proud of you. My faith is not where your faith is. If you need me to do anything; pay a bill, buy food, anything, let me know. I just don’t have the faith to step out like you did.”

 

Going Public

As a single mother supporting five children, the personal consequences of Ms. Wooten’s whistleblowing were already affecting her family through her demotion and failure to be called in for shifts. At the recommendation of the attorney helping Ms. Wooten advocate for the special education needs of her son, prior to going public in September 2020, Ms. Wooten took the important step of securing pro bono legal counsel through Project South and Government Accountability Project

 

We assisted her in filing a retaliation complaint and formal whistleblower disclosures with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG). Her complaint, in addition to the allegations of abusive gynecological care, also detailed management and staff deliberately denying or delaying medical care for detained immigrants before and during the coronavirus pandemic, including immigrants symptomatic for COVID-19; refusing to test symptomatic detained immigrants for COVID-19; failing to isolate or quarantine detained immigrants with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 or those who had close contact; violating CDC guidelines limiting the transfer of immigrants with COVID-19; requiring symptomatic staff to continue to work in the facility and threatening staff with discipline if they refused to work in these dangerous conditions; systematically undercounting and underreporting COVID-19 cases at ICDC; and shredding detainees’ medical request forms and fabricating medical records. 

 

 “You don’t want to see what you’re seeing,” Ms. Wooten told The Intercept in an exclusive story which detailed her allegations. “You’re responsible for the lives of others.” Later that day, Ms. Wooten made her first press appearance in Atlanta. Although the bulk of her disclosures focused on endangerment of immigrants and workers from COVID-19, the press rightly zeroed in on the explosive disclosure that women were undergoing hysterectomies and other gynecological procedures without informed consent. 

 

Impact

The day after the press conference and spurred by initial reporting, Ms. Wooten’s disclosures generated an avalanche of national media attention, advocacy by the immigration justice community amplifying the horrors of immigrant detention, and investigations by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General, the Department of Justice, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. More than 170 members of Congress called for investigations into conditions at ICDC; a Congressional delegation visited to speak with Ms. Wooten as well as victims; there were multiple Capitol Hill briefings, and the House of Representatives passed a resolution introduced in October 2020, condemning the alleged forced medical procedures on detainees at ICE detention facilities, including hysterectomies. The resolution called for DHS to immediately stop deportation efforts of any women who underwent these alleged forced procedures and instead offer them medical care and a second opinion. Ms. Wooten’s case was cited in both House and Senate committee investigations as an example of inadequate medical care at ICE facilities.

 

So far, 57 women who were victims of unwanted medical procedures have come forward with their stories. An independent panel of medical professionals reviewed medical records and found “a disturbing pattern of aggressive treatment, including ‘overcalling’ the need for invasive surgeries, unwarranted pressure to undergo surgery, and a failure to obtain informed consent,” substantiating Ms. Wooten’s allegations and driving calls to shut down ICDC entirely (it remains open at present). 

 

Insider and other media outlets reported that the doctor responsible for the hysterectomies, Dr. Mahendra Amin, was not board certified and had previously been named in a Department of Justice lawsuit alleging Medicaid and Medicare fraud. According to Insider sources, thanks to Ms. Wooten blowing the whistle, ICDC is no longer sending patients to Dr. Amin. 

 

However, Dr. Amin’s medical license remains active and during the investigations, six formerly detained women were suddenly deported, with at least seven others told their fate could be the same, as reported by the Associated Press. On November 24, 2020, the DOJ agreed to temporarily halt the deportations of these women, according to a court filing reported on by Vice. To date, these immigrant women have not been deported but continue to be held at ICDC. 

 

On December 10, 2020, 10 women detained at ICDC came forward to file grievances against Dr. Amin for medical abuse and to date, three of these women have been deported, one has been released from ICDC, and the rest remain detained at the facility. 

 

“Covered in Prayer”

When her pastor saw the press conference in Atlanta in September 2020, she told her, “This is going to be huge… this is going to be major. You don’t even understand the thousands of women that you have helped. You’re going to need to be covered” — meaning spiritually protected. And later when Ms. Wooten revealed more about her disclosures, her pastor said, “Now we need to pray for your safety.” Both would turn out to be true.

 

While Project South and Government Accountability Project provided her with essential legal and advocacy expertise, she recalls her pastor telling her early on, “You have my support and you have the support of the ministry. We’re going to pray through this, and you’re going to get through this.” And they did. Her decision to come forward was met with unconditional support from her close-knit faith community who prayed for her and backed her “100 percent.” 

 

When Ms. Wooten was removed from her full-time position, her pastor made sure the family had food and gas; their small ministry assisted with some bills and even helped her children with clothes and jackets for the winter. After her disclosures went viral in the press, author Jordan Ifueko started a GoFundMe campaign, which is still open for contributions. 

 

Ms. Wooten and her family had to relocate to Atlanta for two months for their safety. It was there she met another pastor who also affirmed her role as whistleblower, telling her, “You’ve done a wonderful thing. We are praying for you.” Ms. Wooten receives similar messages from faith communities in towns and cities across the country — offering a tremendous amount of prayer and support via email, letters, cards, and texts. She was and remains incredibly grateful for all the support. She says the faith communities in this country have stepped up to “cover her in prayer” and that has been a great comfort during hard times.

 

“What if?”

When asked what she would say to someone who finds themselves at a crossroads, having witnessed wrongdoing, Ms. Wooten did not hesitate. She recalls a conversation with a coworker in which she simply asked, “what if?” At this, she says her coworker teared up, and Ms. Wooten continued,

 

“What if this was you? Your sister? Your aunt? Your Grandma? Your cousin? What if you were going through, not just physically, but emotionally, what they were going through? Let’s trade places. Let’s put yourself in their shoes, like I put myself in their shoes. As a Christian, how would you handle this situation? 

 

What would Jesus do? He would, like the Bible says, cry out and spare not. That’s what He would do. 

 

Whenever you are dealing with the lives of others, how would you want somebody to handle your child, or your family member, or even your best friend, who by circumstantial evidence, wound up in this situation? I didn’t know these women and I didn’t know why these women were there [at ICDC]. I don’t have a place to judge them, nor the right to judge them. The Bible tells me not to judge, lest I be judged. 

 

It was the Holy Spirit speaking to me, saying, ‘hey, this is where I put you. This is what you have to be — a voice.’ 

 

It is a gift to be a faith-based voice. 

 

No, it’s not going to feel good. No, it’s not going to work the way you think it’s going to work. Yes, there will be challenges…but with life comes challenges. Speaking up is the right thing to do. It has been a challenge. But would I change it? No. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

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