Community groups want more Arizona gov’t oversight of migrant shelters




Lupe Solis (center) gathered with the Uncage and Reunite Families Coalition on Tuesday, October 9 outside the Arizona Department of Health Services building to demand more oversight and reforms of Southwest Key facilities. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

A coalition of Arizona groups seeking the release and reunification of migrant children and families are calling for state officials to implement stronger measures to address what they call a systemic pattern of physical and sexual abuse of children at Southwest Key facilities, which house migrant minors.

The demands came as the Arizona Department of Health Services and Southwest Key leadership met Tuesday for a settlement conference related to the state’s move to revoke all 13 licenses from the childcare operator.

That meeting happened behind closed doors.

Standing outside the ADHS building, members of the Uncage and Reunite Families Coalition said they worry the state hasn’t done enough to end “a documented pattern of abuse of children” at Southwest Key facilities.

“The coalition is deeply concerned that such a settlement will fall short of ensuring that past patterns of sexual and physical abuse at Southwest Key do not repeat,” said Myron Scott, a coalition member.

A Southwest Key facility in Youngtown shut down Friday after allegations that employees had physically abused three minors in mid-September, according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which contracts companies like Southwest Key.

ADHS said the Youngtown shelter has operated since June 2013 and can house up to 139 minors. An on-site inspection was conducted after an incident was reported in mid-September and an investigation is ongoing, the agency said.

On Sept. 7, a former Southwest Key employee, Levian Pacheco, was convicted of abusing seven teenage boys at a facility in Mesa. Another former staffer in Tucson, Oscar Trujillo, was convicted of sexual abuse after a complaint documented he went into a 15-year-old boy’s room and rubbed his genitals in 2015, according to The Arizona Republic.

State actions focus on fingerprint and training compliance

There has been increased oversight of Southwest Key’s operations in Arizona recently.

In July, ADHS investigated one facility but was “unable to substantiate” multiple complaints related to the safety and care of children, overcapacity, staff qualifications and failure to report to law enforcement.

Since August, ADHS has required Southwest Key to provide “additional self-reporting of any actual or alleged event or situation that creates a significant risk of substantial or serious harm to the physical or mental health, safety, or well-being of a resident.” That month, the state inspected all 13 Southwest Key facilities and found several deficiencies in the company’s employee records and noted a lack of required bedroom doors and privacy curtains in many locations, among other findings.

ADHS ordered Southwest Key to submit evidence that all its employees had current background checks, as required by state law. When it failed to meet the deadline and later provided inadequate records, the state began the process of revoking the licenses for all 13 locations.

Following Tuesday’s settlement meeting, an ADHS spokeswoman said there was no immediate “final decision” on Southwest Key’s licenses.

Community group demands reforms

The Uncage and Reunite Families Coalition formed in the summer at the peak of the zero-tolerance policy that resulted in forceful separations of migrant children and their parents, many of whom were seeking asylum.

The group has called for the following reforms at the state and federal level:

  • Take full responsibility and be held accountable for harm done to traumatized children while in their care and custody;
  • Compensate families for fees and other expenses related to reunification;
  • Ensure the safety, health, and well-being of all held in detention facilities;
  • Investigate, prosecute, fine, remove licensure by holding the detention and care facility operators liable for incidents of abuse;
  • Establish a commission of inquiry to investigate abuse incidents and make recommendations; include representatives of government agencies and members of the community;
  • Include community representatives in all state of Arizona and federal meetings addressing solutions;
  • Strengthen laws and reform facility licensure to prevent abuse and maltreatment;
  • Order auditing by independent experts; and
  • Order 24/7 monitoring of facilities for compliance.
Laura Gómez
Reporter Laura Gómez Rodriguez covers state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror. She worked for The Arizona Republic and La Voz Arizona for four years, covering city government, economic development, immigration, politics and trade. In 2017, Laura traveled the length of the U.S.-Mexico border for “The Wall,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning project produced by The Arizona Republic and USA Today Network. She was named Best Investigative Reporter by Phoenix Magazine in its 2018 newspaper category and has been honored by the Arizona Press Club for Spanish-language news and feature reporting. She is a native of Bogotá, Colombia and lived in Puerto Rico and Boston before moving to Phoenix in 2014. Catch her researching travel deals, feasting on mariscos or playing soccer.

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