Ducey signs bill changing oversight of migrant shelters after Southwest Key controversies

Photo from Facebook | Southwest Key

Gov. Doug Ducey has signed a bill to change how Arizona oversees federally contracted facilities like Southwest Key that run migrant youth shelters.

The House of Representatives sent Senate Bill 1247 to Ducey’s desk last week, with 59 votes in support (Rep. Tony Rivero, R-Peoria, didn’t vote). Democrats in that chamber, led by Rep. Kelli Butler, unsuccessfully pushed for an amendment to create an independent oversight board to review records and policies at migrant youth shelters and make recommendations to state leaders.  

Bill sponsor Sen. Kate Brophy McGee drafted SB1247 in response to controversies surrounding Southwest Key’s operations in Arizona. Last year, state health inspectors found background check violations at Southwest Key’s Arizona facilities. Several sexual abuse cases were uncovered by local and national media, and physical abuse reports led to the shut down of one facility.

Brophy McGee said state health inspectors can now be more proactive about their oversight of migrant youth shelters in Arizona.

“There appears to be another surge in the number of children coming here,” she said. “We’ve got to get this in place and give the (Arizona Department of Health Services) the tools they need to make sure these guys play by the rules,” she said.  

SB1247 has an emergency clause, meaning it takes effect immediately.

The legislation received unanimous support in the Senate in late February. In the House, Democrats reluctantly supported SB1247. Many said Brophy McGee’s bill does little to increase transparency, accountability and protections for migrant minors.

“This bill does not go far enough,” Butler, a Democrat from Paradise Valley, said during an April 15 debate of the bill. “It takes a tiny, tiny, baby step forward.”

SB1247 mostly applies to child residential behavioral health facilities that contract only with the federal government. It strengthens background check requirements, gives state health regulators discretion to inspect those facilities and adds requirements on when those facilities must notify the state health agency of serious incidents.

“That’s real progress, that’s not small potatoes,” Rep. Noel Campbell, R-Prescott, said.

The youth in facilities like Southwest Key are migrants, mostly teenage boys, who arrived in the U.S. alone or were separated from their parent after entering the country. They come mainly from Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and El Salvador.

The children and teens are placed in residential facilities contracted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. Minors are in the shelters while pending reunification with their families or release to sponsors in the U.S.

Who does SB1247 apply to?

The bill’s background check and incident reporting requirements were tailored to only apply to facilities that:

  • contract with the federal government,
  • receives only federal funds,
  • service children, and
  • are licensed as behavioral health residential centers.

SB1247’s inspection authority section applies to all residential behavioral health facilities servicing children.

There are several operators of migrant youth shelters in Arizona.

Southwest Key has 11 facilities – although only four of them in Phoenix, Glendale and Tucson are fully operational. The rest are under a state-imposed freeze, Southwest Key spokesman Neil Nowlin said. A New Leaf also operates two facilities for migrant youth in Mesa, and has plans to expand its operations in the state. Tucson-based Vision Quest National has a long-term foster care residential program, HHS records show.

What the changes are

SB1247 makes changes in three areas: background checks, incident notification requirements and state regulator’s ability to inspect. Here’s how the changes compare to current policies.

Background checks and DCS registry

Now: Employees at facilities like Southwest Key must have a fingerprint clearance card, which is obtained from the Department of Public Safety. DPS runs a background check for state and federal criminal history records. Because migrant youth are in the custody of the federal government, and the shetlers don’t contract with the state, those operators are not subject to extra screening required by the Arizona Department of Child Safety.

Under SB1247: Beginning Sept. 1, 2019, all operators of some federally-contracted facilities will be required to submit employee information to the state DCS for a central registry check. This DCS registry is a list of all substatiated reports of child abuse or neglect, and the outcome of those investigations. Those seeking employment at those facilities will also be subject to a central registry background check.

Incident reporting requirement

Now: ADHS requires facilities notify it of deaths; self-injury incidents that require emergency medical services; alleged or suspected “abuse, neglect or exploitation” that happened before the person receiving services was admitted in the facility; and if there’s “reasonable basis” to believe “abuse, neglect or exploitation” happened at the facility’s premises or in the time the person is receiving services.

Under SB1247: Requires notification to ADHS within 24 hours of actual or alleged incidents that both require notification to law enforcement, DCS or HHS and create a “significant risk of substantial or serious harm to the physical or mental, safety or well-being of a resident.”   

Inspection authority

Now: When renewing licenses for healthcare facilities, ADHS has to accept a current accreditation report from federally-recognized third-party agencies in place of inspections. State health regulators can only inspect healthcare facilities if there is a complaint.

With SB1247: Gives ADHS discretion to accept or not accreditation reports in lieu of an inspection for child behavioral health residential facilities.

‘We need more’

A local advocacy community group, the Uncage and Reunite Families Coalition, favored Butler’s proposal for an independent oversight committee. The 16-person committee would have been given authority to inspect employee records and reports filed with the ADHS or law enforcement, review services provided and request visits to any migrant youth shelter.

In an April 14 letter to House Democratic leadership shared with Arizona Mirror, URFC said even with SB1247 “there are still gaps in protection for immigrant children who are alone in detention.”

“We are unwilling to settle for the illusion of reform and simply wait for the next incidence of abuse,” the group wrote. “We need more. This is a special population in exceptional times.”

Brophy McGee opposed Butler’s amendment because it goes beyond state jurisdiction, she said.

All we have is authority over the facilities. We can’t dictate delivery of service or programmatic measures, all we can do is regulate the buildings and the people who work there,” Brophy McGee said.

Rep. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, said during floor debate that SB1247 goes as far as the state can when overseeing a federally run facility. Barto, like her Republican colleagues, voted down Butler’s amendment.

“It will present a fiscal impact, it will imperil the bill, it will give false security that an oversight committee will be able to do more than DHS can lawfully do,” Barto said. “I urge members to let the system work.”

Barto said state lawmakers can work with the federal government to identify and address loopholes that make migrant children less safe.

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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