State gives new license for Southwest Key to re-open shuttered central Phoenix shelter

By: - September 5, 2019 8:31 am

A Southwest Key facility in Phoenix. Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror

The Arizona Department of Health Services has issued a new license for Southwest Key to reopen the state’s largest privately run shelter for unaccompanied and separated migrant children and teens. 

ADHS spokesman Chris Minnick said state health regulators issued the new license on Sept. 1, and the license expires in a year. The facility is located in Phoenix near Buckeye Road and 7th Avenue and can house up to 420 migrant youth.  

ADHS licenses Southwest Key’s shelters as residential behavioral health facilities for minors.

Southwest Key had to reapply for a license for the central Phoenix location after it agreed to give up the license last year as part of a settlement agreement with ADHS. That settlement, reached in October 2018, was the result of a move by ADHS Director Cara Christ to revoke all of Southwest Key’s licenses to operate in Arizona

The central Phoenix site, known as Casa Phoenix, closed within a month of the October 2018 settlement.

Southwest Key spokesman Neil Nowlin said the new license to operate the central Phoenix shelter, renamed Casa Fortaleza, means the company can immediately begin housing migrant minors.

“There is a continuing need for beds in state licensed facilities, so we remain committed to providing compassionate care, education, recreation, vocational training and access to pro bono legal counsel to the youth in our shelters while our staff works to safely reunite the minors with a sponsor,” Nowlin said in a statement. 

The company is also seeking to reopen a facility in the West Valley, at which operations were suspended by the federal government in September 2018 after incidents involving reports of staff physically abusing three minors.

A community group called Uncage and Reunite Families Coalition, which advocates for detained migrant youth and separated migrant families, had urged ADHS in an Aug. 20, 2019, letter not to allow the two facilities to reopen. It also called for a “public, transparent way” of reviewing the relicensing of Southwest Key shetlers so concerned Arizonans can weigh in.

“We urge ADHS to make public all compliance and inspection reports and healthcare management consultant reports and recommendations, preferably before making a final relicensing decision,” wrote Myron Scott, a member of the Uncage and Reunite Families Coalition. 

ADHS spokesman Minnick told Arizona Mirror that “public comment is not consistent with Arizona law in licensing facilities.” 

He added ADHS has not surveyed the other Southwest Key location the company seeks to reopen, which is a required step in the relicensing process.  

As one Phoenix shelter reopens, two Southwest Key sites in Texas set to close

With the reopening of the central Phoenix shelter, Southwest Key now operates 12 facilities in Arizona with a combined capacity for 1,455 migrant minors. 

Southwest Key entered the national spotlight during in the family separation crisis in the summer of 2018, and local and national news outlets reported on instances of sexual abuse in its facilities. 

ADHS inspectors also cited the company for 65 rule violations at six shelters earlier this year.

A week before the October 2018 settlement was signed, ADHS inspectors visited the central Phoenix facility. They found that Southwest Key failed to take action to implement changes after identifying hundreds of cases of abuse, neglect and other serious incidents, and 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.” 

On June 5, 2019, Southwest Key, a Texas-based non-profit, applied for a license to resume operations in the central Phoenix location. 

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 2018 and July 2019, 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 47 days. There are approximately 7,000 migrant children and teens in about 170 facilities across 23 states as of Aug. 25, 2019, HHS estimated.

Southwest Key is among the country’s largest private operator of migrant youth shelters. It is set to close two Texas shelters with a combined capacity for about 230 children, according to The Brownsville Herald

In two August 2019 reports, HHS’s Office of Inspector General published findings from the reviews of some Southwest Key sites in Texas, Arizona, and California conducted between July 2017 and September 2018. 

One report concluded Southwest Key had inadequate security systems to protect the personal information of migrant minors, as required by federal regulations. The other report documented instances where Southwest Key failed to comply with health and safety requirements at its migrant youth shelters. Among the findings were filthy bathrooms and shower tubs, exposed hazardous cleaning materials accessible to children, and inconsistent background check records for migrant children’s sponsors and Southwest Key employees and volunteers. 

Community group: ADHS oversight ‘a cosmetic slap on the wrist’

The Uncage and Reunite Children Coalition criticized ADHS’ work in conducting oversight of Southwest Key. Since last year, the community group has called for tougher sanctions on operations like Southwest Key when deficiencies are identified. It also wants ADHS to reevaluate whether current licensing meets the needs for care of migrant children and include members of the public in meetings it holds with Southwest Key leadership. 

In the Aug. 20 letter, Scott, the group’s attorney, said the ban on new admissions that ADHS imposed in the October 2018 settlement was lifted too quickly. 

“The brevity of these sanctions if the two facilities are relicensed raise a serious concern that the

Department never intended to seriously discipline Southwest Key beyond a cosmetic slap on the wrist,” Scott wrote. “Granting relicensing after such a short time will undermine the credibility of any future tDHS actions affecting all operators.”

Scott also called for more transparency. 

“The detention of refugee and other immigrant children by private contractors with the Department of Homeland Security and ORR is a controversial issue of public concern both nationally and in Arizona,” he said. “Arizonans should not have to rely on a handful of investigative reporters to learn what ADHS and other agencies are doing regarding detained children.

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Laura Gómez
Laura Gómez

Reporter Laura Gómez Rodriguez covers state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror. She was named Best Investigative Reporter by Phoenix Magazine in its 2018 newspaper category and has been honored by the Arizona Press Club for education, immigration, political, and public safety reporting and Spanish-language news and feature reporting. Laura 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 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.