A Senate bill to expand state oversight of facilities like Southwest Key that house migrant children in Arizona won’t go as far as originally intended, some advocates said.
With the recent controversies surrounding migrant youth shelter operator Southwest Key in mind, Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, introduced Senate Bill 1247 to expand background checks and allow for regulatory inspections on child health care facilities. The bill, along with an amendment she proposed, passed unanimously Wednesday in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.
“The policy that I have intended to set forward here is that every child within the boundaries of the state of Arizona, in the care of the state but also in care of the government, will be in a safe facility, and the individuals working in that facility will be completely vetted and background checked,” Brophy McGee said during the bill’s hearing.
But her amendment softens the state’s oversight reach when compared to the original bill.
Currently, the Arizona Department of Health Services can only inspect nationally accredited health care facilities in response to complaints. That requirement restricts the department’s ability to inspect the 11 sites where Southwest Key houses children in residential behavioral health centers in Arizona.
The bill initially removed that complaint-based requirement for hundreds of residential child behavioral health facilities so that ADHS would have the ability to inspect them for compliance with state law. The amendment brings back the exemption if they meet certain conditions. The agency still has discretion to inspect, though it is not required.
“The way I read the bill as amended, ADHS can use a third party certification in lieu of routine annual inspections, but they don’t have to,” said Will Humble, executive director for the Arizona Public Health Association and former head of ADHS. “In essence, it’s better than where we were, but not as far as we’d like us to have gone.”
Brophy McGee told the Mirror that the amendment doesn’t exempt facilities like Southwest Key under any circumstances.
She referred further inquiries on specific accreditation and licensure points to Shannon Whiteaker, chief legislative liaison for ADHS. Whiteaker couldn’t be reached for comment. ADHS spokeswoman Melissa Blasius-Nuanez said the agency doesn’t comment on pending legislation.
Southwest Key is the country’s largest operator of shelters for migrant youth who arrived in the country alone to seek protection or were separated from their parents. The minors are placed in shelters while pending reunification with their families or release to sponsors in the U.S. Until then, the children are custody of the federal government and operators of shelters like Southwest Key contract directly with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Emily Jenkins, president of the Arizona Council of Human Service Providers, explained residential healthcare facilities for children operate under a complaint-driven system, where people like parents and social workers who frequent those places are the eyes and ears of state regulators. But places like Southwest Key don’t have that foot traffic, she said.
Brophy McGee’s amendment says state health regulators can choose not to inspect behavioral health residential facilities that service children if they have both a federally-recognized accreditation and they haven’t been sanctioned by ADHS for licensure violations within a year.
This change was intended to not add new regulation to facilities that don’t have populations like Southwest Key’s and for whom the complaint-based system works, Jenkins said. But after questions from the Mirror, she acknowledged the amendment may exempt Southwest Key from inspections.
In essence, some advocates say Brophy McGee’s bill took two steps forward and one back.
Jana Granillo, a member of the Uncage and Reunite Families Coalition — a group that has called for more state oversight over Southwest Key’s Arizona operation — said the amendment leaves gaps in the bill.
“It went from being very preventative, all-encompassing to surgically prescriptive to those bad actors who have been caught and substantiated,” she said. “I think about this population, they are special migrant children. How do complaints get raised from people who are alone? Who looks out for them?”
Brophy McGee’s amendment also adds an emergency clause, meaning the bill needs two-thirds of the votes in each chamber to pass, instead of a simple majority, and the new regulations would take effect as soon as the bill is signed into law, as opposed to the 90-day waiting period for most new laws.
The bill and the amendment also expand background check requirements.
Brophy McGee’s bill initially required all facilities licensed in the state that provide services to children but don’t contract with the state to use the Arizona Department of Child Safety central registry. The central registry is a list of substantiated reports of child abuse and neglect and the outcomes of the associated investigations. The amended version of the bill narrows the scope of which sites it covers to only include child residential behavioral health facilities that contract with the federal government and receive federal funds. Background check requirements would begin on Sept. 1.
The proposal also mandates that state-licensed child behavioral health facilities have an accreditation report for each of its sites, instead of only for the organization’s headquarters, Jenkins explained.
Various stakeholders support Brophy McGee’s legislation.
Kevin DeMenna, a lobbyist for Southwest Key, told the committee Wednesday that the company favors the bill and the amendment because it allows for more transparency and accountability.
ADHS, the Arizona Public Health Association and the Arizona Council of Human Service Providers, which represents facilities providing child behavioral health residential services, also back Brophy McGee’s bill. DCS registered as neutral to this bill.
Granillo spoke at the hearing to support the bill, though she said she hadn’t had time to review the amendment. Granillo also encouraged Brophy McGee, who chairs the committee, to hear Senate Bill 1493, introduced by Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, to create a public oversight committee for all migrant shelter operators.
Brophy McGee said Friday she’s working on adding another amendment to her bill to add notification requirements so the state is aware of when migrant youth come and leave shelters in Arizona.
“My efforts are now turned toward notification that these kids are here, and also follow-up notification that they’ve left, they’ve been permanently located or located with family,” she said.