The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Georgia ICE Whistleblower Struggles to Make Ends Meet

This article features Government Accountability Project whistleblower client, Dawn Wooten, and was originally published here.

Dawn Wooten is bracing herself for a lackluster Christmas. Short on money, the Tifton resident knows she will be unable to give her two youngest boys — ages 10 and 11 — a celebration filled with as many presents as in years past.

“That does not feel good as a parent,” she said earlier this week. “It’s to the point where I put up a tree, but I have not brought myself to decorate it. And Christmas is on Sunday.”

In 2020, Wooten put Georgia immigration detention front and center of the national consciousness, when she came forward with explosive allegations of medical malpractice and abuse at a since shuttered immigrant jail in Ocilla. The 45-year-old worked there as a nurse. Her whistleblower report sparked lawsuits and investigations — a legacy Wooten feels vindicated by.

But the nurse and mother of five says coming forward has also cost her her job, and that the ensuing notoriety has effectively rendered her “unemployable,” despite serious staffing shortages in the health care industry.

“I didn’t know what a whistleblower was. I did not know I was blowing a whistle. … It was kind of like driving at night without night vision goggles,” Wooten said. “I did not know what the repercussions were going to be.”

For the immigrant women Wooten said she sought to protect, the repercussions of her actions were almost immediate.

Just days after she came forward, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said a gynecologist at the center of Wooten’s complaint would no longer see patients from the privately-run Ocilla immigrant detention center. And after the Biden administration severed ties with the 1,296-bed jail, all ICE detainees were moved out by early September 2021.

Following an 18-month bipartisan probe, a report published last month confirmed much of what Wooten had said. Although it didn’t substantiate her allegation of mass hysterectomies, the investigation found a pattern of “excessive, invasive, and often unnecessary” gynecological procedures inside the detention center. The 103-page report also raised questions about detainees’ ability to consent to the procedures and describes gaps in ICE oversight that could have been a factor in the alleged medical abuse.

“In my view, [this] represents a catastrophic failure by the federal government to respect basic human rights,” Sen. Jon Ossoff of Georgia said during a Senate hearing the day the report was published. “Among the serious abuses [the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations] has investigated during the last two years, subjecting female detainees to nonconsensual and unnecessary gynecological surgeries is one of the most nightmarish and disgraceful.”

“I was deeply moved,” Wooten said of hearing Ossoff’s remarks.

But providing for her family remains a challenge.

Wooten says she has been unable to find a new, full-time nursing position, despite having applied for over 100 jobs. This fall, she started a GoFundMe campaign to help cover her living expenses. In an interview with the Guardian, she disclosed having to rely on food stamps.

“I remember at one job they said, ‘I’m sorry, but we can’t hire you. Because we don’t need that type of chaos inside of our facilities,’” she said. “I miss that sense of stability. Before, I knew I was going to go to work. I knew I was going to work 12 hours. I knew I was going to go home and have the money for the lights, I knew I was going to have the money for the rent.”

With the help of pro-bono representation from the Government Accountability Project, Wooten is suing her former employer for what she considers to be unlawful termination and retaliation. But that process is slow going.

For now, Wooten can only reminisce about the stability and purpose her profession once provided.

“I miss patient care. That was therapy for me, not just for the patients themselves,” she said. “I miss the ability to lift the spirits of somebody else.”