Migrant children in AZ shelters to keep play time, education services, despite end of federal funding

Minors are seen as they exercise in a common area at the Homestead shelter for unaccompanied migrant children on April 08, 2019 in Homestead, Florida. Photo by Joe Raedle | Getty Images

The Arizona Department of Health Services reassured two concerned Democratic lawmakers that migrant children and teens housed in state-licensed facilities are guaranteed play time and an education.

This month, Democratic Reps. Kelli Butler of Phoenix and Kristen Engel of Tucson sent a letter to ADHS Director Cara Christ in response to an announcement by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement that it will no longer reimburse companies it contracts with to operate shelters for migrant youth for educational and recreational programs and legal aid services.

“We know ADHS shares our concern for the safety and well-being of the over 1,000 unaccompanied migrant children in ORR custody housed in ADHS-licensed facilities within Arizona,” Butler and Engel wrote in the June 6 letter. “Should these children be denied access to adequate education and recreation programs, we believe their physical and mental health will be subject to serious risk of damage.”

ADHS licenses two companies — Southwest Key (with capacity for more than 1,000 minors) and A New Leaf (with fewer than 100 beds for migrant youth) — with programs for migrant children and teens. The minors there usually arrived in the country alone or were separated from their parent or relative after arrival, and are often pending placement with a guardian or a sponsor. 

ADHS licenses those organizations to operate behavioral health residential facilities for children.

In a response obtained by Arizona Mirror, Christ said the care of migrant youth “remains a top priority for my department” and thanked the lawmakers for their concern “for our littlest residents in Arizona.” 

“We agree that access to recreational and educational opportunities are critical for the health and wellbeing of the children,” Christ wrote in a June 14 letter. “If ADHS were to discover that recreational or educational services were not being provided to children in Arizona, ADHS has broad authority to correct the situation.” 

Christ invited Butler and Engel to meet to address their concerns. They met on Tuesday. 

Butler said the conversation was reassuring. 

“They said they do consider education and recreational services to be crucial to children’s health,” she said. “They feel that having access to legal services is the children’s right.”

Southwest Key said in a statement if it were to discontinue education and recreation services, its state licensing would be “at risk.”

“According to licensing requirements in Texas, Arizona and California, we are required to provide education and recreation services in our shelters – not doing so puts our license at risk,” spokesman Neil Nowlin said. “We are working with regulators in the states where we operate and with project officers at the Office of Refugee Resettlement to ensure we remain in compliance.”

Southwest Key is the nation’s largest operator of migrant youth shelters has capacity for about 5,000 minors in California, Arizona and Texas. It has 11 licenses to operate six programs in Arizona. 

ADHS spokesman Chris Minnick said the agency’s licensing standards are made to “protect the health and safety of residents.” 

“In the Arizona Administrative Code, ADHS requires licensees to provide educational and recreational services to the children they serve in Arizona,” Minnick said. “Changes to how a facility is being paid do not impact or change ADHS licensure requirements.”

State regulators have kept close tabs of Southwest Key since the agency and the non-profit reached a settlement in October, after ADHS warned it would revoke all of the operator’s licenses for failing to provide background check records. Southwest Key agreed to close two facilities and take corrective steps like hiring inspectors and a third-party consultant to vet and improve its operations. ADHS placed a freeze on new admissions of children at all the facilities until Southwest Key met the settlement requirements. ADHS and Southwest Key have met regularly. Health inspectors visited the facilities for compliance. The health department allowed the first facility to reopen on Feb. 28.

Currently, all Southwest Key facilities have reopened and operate with no admissions cap, Minnick said. 

In their joint letter to ADHS, Butler and Engel asked whether the state health regulators will visit facilities for migrant youth to confirm operators are providing recreational and educational services.

As part of the settlement, ADHS has authority to visit and inspect all of Southwest Key’s facilities unannounced until September 2020. 

Butler said state regulators won’t be visiting the facilities unless there is a complaint or an accreditation renewal, but she is confident ADHS is vigilant about migrant children and teens receiving educational and recreational services. 

During the legislative session, Butler proposed creating a community oversight board to visit shelters for migrant youth, inspect records and procedures and provide recommendations to state leaders. The proposal failed on party lines, with Democrats in favor and Republicans in opposition. 

Butler said she’ll continue to work to expand the state authority over migrant youth shelters. 

“I remain concerned that there are still layers between the federal government and the state level, and those layers are not transparent enough,” she said. 

Another bill inspired by the Southwest Key controversies was signed by Gov. Doug Ducey in April. It increases background check requirements, adds incident reporting standards and gives ADHS inspection authority.

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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