Southwest Key has applied for new licenses with the Arizona Department of Health Services to resume operations at two shuttered shelters for migrant minors in downtown Phoenix and Youngtown.
The locations closed last year after ADHS and Southwest Key reached a settlement in October, putting an end to the agency’s move to shut down all of the company’s 13 Arizona shelters by revoking their licenses.
Southwest Key is the country’s largest operator of shelters for migrant children and teens.
A federal agency suspended operations at the Youngtown site on Sept. 18, 2018, after reports of staff physically abusing a 7-year-old girl and two boys. Videos and records of those incidents document staff slapped, pushed, kicked and dragged the minors. Law enforcement and county prosecutors investigated the incidents and ultimately concluded no crimes were committed.
ADHS records show the downtown Phoenix location also documented cases where staff used physical restraints, in violation with state regulations, among several other deficiencies.
In the settlement with the state, Southwest Key agreed to surrender its state licenses for the Youngtown and downtown Phoenix locations, among other terms, including paying a $73,000 fine and prohibiting new admissions.
“Having successfully resolved the issues that led to the temporary closing of these two shelters, we have applied for new licenses to reopen them,” said Neil Nowlin, a spokesman for Southwest Key.
ADHS licenses Southwest Key to operate residential behavioral health facilities for children.
Southwest Key operates 11 sites in the state, with a capacity for about 1,035 migrant youth. If the two new licenses are approved, Southwest Key’s capacity in the Arizona would increase to almost 1,600 beds.
On June 4, ADHS received an application for a new license for the facility on 7th Avenue and Buckeye Road in Phoenix, which would have 420 beds and be known as Casa de Fortaleza, according to agency records. On July 16, ADHS received a new license application for the Youngtown site, known as Casa Amanecer, with an expected capacity for 139 minors.
Before issuing a new license, ADHS reviews the applications and surveys the sites, department spokesman Chris Minnick said. ADHS has not conducted any inspections of the two locations, Minnick said.
Need for more beds of migrant minors
Minors in facilities like Southwest Key’s migrated to the U.S. alone to seek protections or were separated from their parent or relative at the border. They’re mostly teenagers from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
Between October and July, almost 73,000 unaccompanied migrant minors arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures.
After processing by border and immigrantion officials, the migrant children and teens are transferred to the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. Then, they are placed in shelters, most of them privately-run, while they await family reunification or release to a sponsor.
According to HHS, the average stay at those shetlers is 45 days. There are approximately 8,700 migrant children and teens in about 170 facilities across 23 states as of Aug. 5, HHS estimated.
Southwest Key, a non-profit based in Texas, has capacity to house about 5,000 migrant youth in California, Texas and Arizona.
“There is a continuing need for beds in state licensed facilities to care for unaccompanied immigrant minors coming to this country,” Nowlin said. “We are committed to caring for these youth and safely reuniting them with a loved one or sponsor.”
Since 2003, Southwest Key has received more than $2 billion in federal funding for unaccompanied children programs, according to the HHS.
Youngtown employees slapped, kicked, pulled and dragged minors
Eight days after HHS ordered the suspension of operations at the Youngtown location, ADHS inspectors visited the facility. They reviewed videos of the alleged physical abuse, and concluded three employees “used physical methods of restricting the residents’ freedom of movement and physical activity.”
That was noted as a violation of the minor’s rights.
According to the ADHS inspection report, provided to Arizona Mirror through a public records request, this is how those incidents were described in Southwest Key’s records:
- A surveillance video showed a staff member pushing a minor. The employee then slapped the minor with an open hand, and forcefully moved the minor’s leg away from the door frame with an “apparent kick.”
- Video footage showed an employee grabbed a minor by the arms, and pulled and pushed them into a conference room. When the minor threw themselves on the doors of the conference room, the employee held them by the arms and later grabbed the minor’s leg and dragged them to a hallway.
- Video showed an employee pushing a minor out of a room towards two doors leading to another area. When the minor stood in front of the doors, the employee grabbed both of the minor’s arms, and pulled them away from the doors.
Southwest Key said the employees involved in those incidents were terminated.
Casa Phoenix had repeated serious incidents
The downtown Phoenix location — which was the Southwest Key’s largest Arizona shelter and known as Casa Phoenix — closed within a month of the October 2018 settlement.
There were serious concerns over the facility’s lack of action after repeated incidents of abuse and neglect.
ADHS inspectors visited the site on Oct. 18 and Oct 19. They investigated 77 complaints and found 55 of them were substantiated. They concluded that, “based on the allegations substantiated and deficient practices found at the facility, a significant risk of harm to the life, health and safety of residents was found.”
ADHS declared an “immediate jeopardy” at the facility on Oct. 19, and lifted that designation the next day. ADHS inspectors found that Southwest Key failed to take action to implement changes after identifying hundreds of cases of abuse, neglect and other serious incidents at Casa Phoenix.
In fiscal year 2018 (Oct. 1, 2017 through Sept. 30, 2018), the facility documented 81 serious incidents related to abuse and neglect, 393 “major behavioral incidents that threaten safety,” and 818 “other” significant incidents, according to ADHS’ inspection report.
At the time, the facility’s manual for incidents that required reporting included cases like: allegations or occurrences of physical abuse, neglect, and exploitation; accidents and injuries; and illegal or violent behavior.
ADHS also found a minor complained about an employee touching his genital area. The incident involved a Southwest Key employee who grabbed the minor by the arm and stuck their hand in the minor’s front pocket to grab a deck of cards the minor was prohibited from using while in class.
“The (minor) stated that (they) felt uncomfortable due to staff touching (the minor’s) genitals while having (the employee’s) hand in (the minor’s) pocket,” the inspection report stated. The incident occured in 2018, but the month, and names and gender of the minor and employee were redacted.
In another incident, an employee pulled, dragged, held and carried a minor down a hallway after the minor was trying to go into a room, the report states. That employee resigned.
State inspectors also found Casa Phoenix had incomplete medical records, failed to report aggressive behavior of a minor as a serious incident, consent rules related to administering medicines and care weren’t followed, and bedroom windows in some cases didn’t have blinds or curtains.
Also among the deficiencies, ADHS found Southwest Key “failed to ensure a resident with limited ability to function independently received continuous protective oversight” for five of 22 resident files they reviewed. Additionally, two minors who displayed concerning behaviors weren’t properly assessed by a behavioral health professional.
Employee files also revealed that hiring staff didn’t do required reference checks until after the candidate was hired, in one case 10 months after hire date.
Southwest Key and state regulators have met regularly since the October settlement.
When that deal was reached, ADHS imposed an admissions freeze on all Southwest Key sites citing a statute that gives it authority to do so if a facility is in “substantial violation” of its license and as a result the “life or safety of patients will be immediately affected.”
The migrant youth shelter operator has since hired a healthcare management consultant to vet all of its Arizona facilities and evaluators for each of its sites.
Health inspectors have visited the facilities for compliance. The health department allowed the first facility to reopen on Feb. 28. All 11 Southwest Key shelters are now operating without admissions restrictions.
ADHS can visit any Southwest Key facility unannounced until September 2020.