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After Investigation of Migrant-Children Shelters, Arizona Will Revoke Several Licenses

After recent media reports of sexual abuse, the agency investigated all Southwest Key facilities and "was unable to substantiate multiple complaints regarding overcapacity, failure to report to law enforcement, staff qualifications, and the safety and care of children at Southwest Key."

By Perla Trevizo

The state has notified Southwest Key it intends to revoke the licenses of its Arizona shelters holding migrant children, including the one in Tucson, after it failed to prove it is complying with required background checks.

"Southwest Key's lack of ability to deliver a simple report on the critical protections these children have against dangerous felons demonstrate an utter disregard for Arizona law, the mutual agreement with the Department, and calls into question the privilege you enjoy operating a health care institution in the state of Arizona," Cara Christ, director of the Arizona Department of Health services said in a letter sent Wednesday to Southwest Key CEO Juan Sanchez.

After recent media reports of sexual abuse, the agency investigated all Southwest Key facilities and "was unable to substantiate multiple complaints regarding overcapacity, failure to report to law enforcement, staff qualifications, and the safety and care of children at Southwest Key," Christ wrote in a report to Gov. Doug Ducey last month. But it found problems with employee background checks, especially in Tucson, where inspectors determined eight employees were late to apply for fingerprint clearance cards.

The Texas-based nonprofit was supposed to provide the state information regarding their efforts to audit and verify all current employees fingerprint clearance cards and the minimum training requirements by September 14, according to the letter, which was first reported by The Arizona Republic.

The information provided to the state regarding roughly 2,000 employees was not only late, but deemed deficient and not acceptable by the department, which Christ said showed the organization's "inability and unwillingness to comprehend Arizona's most basic licensure laws."

Among other things, Christ said the report provided by Southwest Key consisted of incongruent spreadsheets, filled with names and dates but no context that would allow the department to interpret the information.

In a written statement, Southwest Key spokesman Jeff Eller said they apologize for missing the reporting deadline and that they were "serious about ensuring that never happens again."

He said they've requested to meet with ADHS leadership as soon as possible and "know that having a strong partnership with the agency is incumbent upon us. We remain committed to meeting all Arizona licensing requirements -- both required by law and voluntary -- and doing so in a timely manner."

Southwest Key, which describes itself as the largest provider of shelter services to unaccompanied minors in the country, operates 13 shelters in Arizona.

Recent media reports have found incidents of sexual assault and abuse at some of the country's 100 shelters caring for migrant children across 17 states, including those in Arizona.

Levian Pacheco, a former Southwest Key youth care worker in Mesa was convicted earlier this month for abusing at least eight boys over an 11 month-period. ProPublica reported he worked four months without a background check.

Another staffer was arrested and charged with molesting a 14-year-old girl this year, The Arizona Republic reported. A 6-year-old girl who was separated from her mother this summer was fondled twice by another child at a migrant shelter in Glendale.

Locally, nearly 100 incident reports since 2014 to the Tucson Police Department reviewed by the Star show at least three especially serious cases:

* Oscar Trujillo was convicted last year of sexual abuse and sentenced to three years probation for touching a 15-year old boy in his genital area over his clothing and trying to pull down his pants inside the teen's room in 2015.

* A 17-year-old Honduran boy who arrived at the Tucson shelter in February 2017 told DCS that after he had surgery on his knee and while recovering and still on pain medication, he woke up and saw a staffer standing next to his bed and talking about his penis. Another time, the staff member reached for the video game controller and his hand brushed his genitals. The teen initially denied the allegations because he was afraid he would have to stay at the facility. The investigation is ongoing.

* In 2015, two female employees told managers that a maintenance supervisor had groped them. The company made an internal sexual harassment investigation and didn't find anything. The maintenance supervisor denied the accusations and ultimately the case was closed because it was his word against that of the female employees.

Other reports point to allegations of inappropriate relationships with staff, sexual contact among minors and bullying.

In an interview with NPR, Sanchez said the company self-reports allegations and "if any allegation involves a staff member, we immediately suspend the staff member so they are out of the program, and we turn over the investigation to child care licensing."

If ADHS moves towards revocation, Southwest Key may: surrender their license; do nothing and have their license revoked after 30 days; or request a hearing before an administrative judge. In they choose the latter, they may also request a settlement conference with ADHS prior to the hearing, according to department spokeswoman Melissa Blasius-Nuanez.

In the letter, Christ said the required fingerprint background checks are one of the most important tools the department has to verify the organization is taking every step to make sure employees don't have criminal history that would place children and vulnerable patients at risk. "We take this requirement seriously, but apparently, providing the Department with reassurance that you require the critical background check is not a priority for your organization."

And it reminded Southwest Key that it had failed in the past with providing appropriate background checks of employees. "This report indicates an astonishingly flippant attitude in your organization's response to the Department's grave concerns."

(c)2018 The Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, Ariz.)

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