Montogomery declines to prosecute Southwest Key abuse incidents

By: - March 29, 2019 1:54 pm

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery. Photo by Gage Skidmore | Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office has declined to prosecute three cases of child abuse involving Southwest Key employees and three migrant minors because it didn’t find enough evidence to sustain criminal charges.

The incidents took place in September in a Youngtown shelter and prompted the federal government to shut down that Southwest Key facility.

“All statements, evidence and reports surrounding each incident revealed none of the three children sustained any physical injuries, there was no evidence of an intent to injure the children, and the children did not share any feelings of having been ill-treated,” MCAO said in a press release.

The three incidents involved employee Michael Royce pushing a boy, bear-hugging him from behind, kicking him in the leg and hitting his body; employee Yamilette Santos dragging a seven-year-old girl by the leg to her bed; and employee Mauro Lopez grabbing a minor who was blocking the door of a classroom by the arm and pulling the minor away. All employees involved were fired, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — which contracts the migrant shelter operators — said in October.

The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office closed the investigation on these three cases twice. After media coverage, the agency referred the cases to the county attorney on Dec. 31.

In a written statement, County Attorney Bill Montgomery said prosecutors thoroughly reviewed and carefully assessed “the context within which these events took place.”

“We have determined there is no reasonable likelihood of proving beyond a reasonable doubt the required elements of a felony offense,” Montgomery said.

Southwest Key Vice President Geraldo Rivera said Montgomery’s decision “is an important step forward as we resume our work in Arizona.”

“We will continue to self-report any potentially improper behavior in our shelters so it can be reviewed by the proper officials,” he added.

Esther Durán Lumm, a spokeswoman for the community group Uncage and Reunite Families Coalition, said the group is disappointed in Montogomery’s decision. She said nothing is preventing the employees involved from seeking employment with children and “continuing their abusive behavior.”
“If the county attorney had his children or grandchildren in the position of the SW Keys kids, I don’t doubt his decision would be to prosecute to the max allowable,” Durán Lumm said in a statement. “I am disappointed and dissatisfied but not surprised, given Montgomery’s past history where people of color are concerned.”

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. At a press conference in January, Sheriff Paul Pezone said the safety of children “fell through the cracks” in the response to the child abuse reports at the Youngtown facility.

MCSO conducted supplementary investigations of the three incidents from Sept. 27 until Dec. 5, during which deputies interviewed the employees who were involved and witnesses, reviewed hundreds of hours of security footage and did forensic interviews in Spanish of the three children involved, Penzone said.

That investigation was reviewed by MCAO.

The Mirror has a public records request for the MCSO report that has not been fulfilled.

It is commonplace for law enforcement to file information reports without investigating cases at migrant youth shelters as potential crimes, a ProPublica investigation of sexual abuse reports found. Two U.S. Senators recently called for an investigation of “an alleged widespread and long-term pattern of sexual abuse against unaccompanied children” in federally contracted facilities that hold migrant minors.

Here are the three reports released to the Mirror by MCSO.

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Laura Gómez
Laura Gómez

Laura Gómez Rodriguez previously covered state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror.