The victims weren’t a priority for their caretakers or the police

December 31, 2018 1:41 pm

Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office administration building in downtown Phoenix. Photo:

At every point in the story about migrant children being the victims of abuse at the hand of Southwest Key shelter employees, you see the same thing: People more concerned with covering their asses than actually protecting these vulnerable children.

Four days after my colleague, Laura Gómez, wrote about how the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office closed cases on reported child abuse after doing what would only minimally be considered an investigation, MCSO reversed course and said it would refer the cases to county prosecutors.

The news was reported yesterday by the Arizona Republic, which two days earlier obtained and published redacted versions of the security camera footage that MCSO deputies reviewed before determining that the allegations some of the migrant children housed in a Southwest Key facility in Youngtown were being abused didn’t warrant further investigation.

The Mirror also obtained those videos:

We know from the reports filed by the deputies, which the Arizona Mirror published Dec. 26, that MCSO failed to do its duty to protect these children. We can also infer that Southwest Key, which reported all three incidents to MCSO, was more concerned with protecting itself legally than it was with seeking justice.

The most troubling case involved a boy of unknown age who was bear-hugged, kicked and hit by a staffer named Michael Royce on Sept. 14. MCSO redacted the age of the boy in its report, but estimated he was between 36 and 42 inches tall and weighed between 50 and 60 pounds. Using those figures, the child was likely 5 or 6 years old. Royce was estimated to be between 5’10” and 6’2”, weighing between 180 and 200 pounds.

When he viewed the security footage, the MCSO deputy (identified only as D Jones in the report), saw Royce push the child, then bear-hug him from behind, then kick him in the leg and, finally, hit him.

Deputy Jones then did what anyone investigating a potential crime would do: He asked to interview the victim (the roughly 6-year-old boy), the perpetrator (the roughly 50- to 60-year-old Royce), and the staff member who witnessed the incident and reported it to Southwest Key security (identified as Angelica Rodriquez).

But after the security staff said that Southwest Key administration preferred to handle the matter internally and didn’t want Jones to interview anyone involved, Jones did what any law enforcement officer committed to upholding the law and finding justice for victims would do: He took no further action, wrote a report, and closed the case. That’s how investigations work, right?

MCSO stopped returning phone calls and emails from Gómez earlier this month after she started asking why the case was listed as “exceptionally cleared,” given that there was video evidence of abuse, and whether the deputy followed agency policies and procedures for pursuing child abuse allegations.

Law enforcement agencies are allowed to close cases under “exceptional” circumstances, for instance if the known culprits are dead or the statute of limitations is passed. Closing a case because co-workers of an alleged abuser don’t want him prosecuted is hardly  “exceptional.”

And if the words “exceptionally cleared” sound familiar, that’s because MCSO has a history of using that designation to avoid conducting thorough investigations into felonies, including sexual assault, in predominantly Latino communities.

But it’s not like Southwest Key really wanted an investigation, either. As if it wasn’t apparent from the actions of the security staff, Deputy Jones notes in his report that the company only called him because it has to.

In her reporting, Gómez spoke with several experts in child abuse investigations, all of who told her that it was unconscionable for MCSO to declare the cases closed simply on the say-so of the company whose employee was caught on tape kicking and hitting a young boy.

If you assume the goal is justice for victims who are separated from their families and hundreds of thousands of miles from home, those experts are entirely correct. But if the goal is merely going through the motions so the shelter company and the law enforcement agencies can check the needed boxes to be able to say they are “investigating” misdeeds and complying with reporting requirements, then nothing should be surprising.

Here’s hoping Maricopa County prosecutors do a better job of seeking justice than either MCSO or Southwest Key.

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Jim Small
Jim Small

Jim Small is a native Arizonan and has covered state government, policy and politics since 2004, with a focus on investigative and in-depth policy reporting, first as a reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times, then as editor of the paper and its prestigious sister publications, the Yellow Sheet Report and Arizona Legislative Report. Under his guidance, the Capitol Times won numerous state, regional and national awards for its accountability journalism and probing investigations into state government operations.