Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone said things fell through the cracks in the investigations his agency conducted into three reports of child abuse at a Southwest Key facility for migrant children in Youngtown.
“It is no secret that I have committed to putting children as the No. 1 priority,” Penzone said Monday at a press conference. “This does not meet my commitment, that falls on me.”
The incidents involved allegations of physical abuse by employees against three minors in September. The reports prompted the federal government to shut down the Southwest Key facility in Youngtown, licensed to hold 139 children, on Sept. 28.
All three cases were initially closed after cursory investigations, but Pezone said MCSO conducted supplementary investigations of the three incidents from Sept. 27 until Dec. 5, during which deputies interviewed the suspects and witnesses, reviewed hundreds of hours of security footage and did forensic interviews in Spanish of the three children involved.
Penzone said there “were two areas of concern (…) that are most glaring” in the investigation: The responding deputies’ limited inquiry of the reports and the conclusion after the supplementary investigations to close the cases again.
Media coverage of the incidents led MCSO leadership to reverse its conclusion and refer the case to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office on Dec. 31. Penzone said Monday that MCSO will hire two auditors to supervise all future calls of service related to crimes against children.
A decision from the county attorney on whether to file charges, send back the cases to MCSO for further investigation or not prosecute should come by Feb. 13, said Maricopa County Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Amanda Steele.
All Southwest Key employees involved in the three incidents of alleged physical abuse in Youngtown were fired, according to an October statement from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which is the custodial agency of migrant minors and oversees the contracts with shelter operators.
A review of records by the Arizona Mirror showed MCSO deputies who responded to the incidents closed the cases after only viewing security camera footage and without interviewing the employees or the minors involved.
Penzone said the responding deputies should have alerted supervisors or investigators about the cases for a more thorough review.
He said the agency is conducting internal interviews to understand the “mindset of the deputies.” He added that responding officers should get more training on their authority to investigate crimes against children.
Penzone said that, 12 days after the first report, a supervisor “recognized these cases should not have been written as if they were closed” and re-opened the investigations.
The investigating MCSO team closed the cases on Dec. 5, citing an Arizona statute that allows the use of physical force to be justified in certain cases, including when a guardian, parent or teacher “entrusted with the care and supervision of a minor” reasonably and appropriately does so to maintain discipline, he said.
MCSO’s executive team should have been looped in before reaching that conclusion, exposing a lack of checks and balances in his agency, Penzone said.
“The process as it existed did not meet the expectation of my office or this community, so we have to correct it,” he said. “I don’t expect perfection, but I do demand excellence. We are going to have to continue to improve and rebuild to become an agency that you can look at with pride and that we are not letting things fall through the cracks.”
Experts consulted by the Mirror in December said in cases of child abuse, it’s best to “err on the side of caution,” and best practice is to submit the cases to a prosecutor for review.
“In my mind, the state needs to be sure it goes above and beyond, and that any claims are investigated to the fullest and in compliance with the law,” said Heidi Zoyhofski, an attorney for abused and neglected children.
While records provided by MCSO to the Mirror in December showed two of the incidents occurred on Sept. 14 and the other on Sept. 21., Penzone said Monday all three took place on Sept. 14. He said Southwest Key suspended the employees involved the next day.
Southwest Key reported one incident to MCSO on Sept. 15 and another on Sept. 17. HHS suspended placement of children in the Youngtown shelter on Sept. 18. Southwest Key reported the third incident to MCSO on Sept. 21, Penzone said.
The first alleged abuse involved an employee, Michael Royce, pushing a boy, bear-hugging him from behind, kicking him in the leg and hitting his body. The boy, whose age was not disclosed, hit Royce in the groin with a ball and spit at him, according to the MCSO report.
Another report involved employee Yamilette Santos dragging a seven-year-old girl by the leg to her bed. The third incident was of employee Mauro Lopez grabbing a minor who was blocking the door of a classroom by the arm and pulling the minor away, according to an MCSO report.
The Arizona Department of Health Services, which licenses Southwest Key as a child care facility, released redacted video of the three incidents last week.
Southwest Key licenses in Arizona
Southwest Key nearly lost all of its licenses to operate in Arizona after it failed to provide evidence it had current and adequate background checks for its employees, as required by state law.
Community groups called for more state oversight over Southwest Key’s shelters.
Southwest Key reached a settlement with ADHS on Oct. 24, and the operator surrendered two of its 13 licenses in the state. One was for the Youngtown shelter and the other was in central Phoenix. The company has paid a $73,000 civil penalty to the state under the terms of the settlement.
The closed Phoenix shelter, located near the Phoenix Memorial Hospital, was licensed to hold 420 children.
Southwest Key is the country’s largest shelter operator for migrant minors.
Police failing to investigate child abuse claims at immigrant youth shelters isn’t uncommon nationally, an ProPublica investigation found. It’s review of hundreds of police reports of sexual assaults at shelters for migrant minors found “responding officers simply filed brief information reports about the incidents, without investigating them as potential crimes.”