Southwest Key CEO steps down, says ‘it’s time for new beginnings’

Photo from Facebook | Southwest Key

The founder and CEO of the nation’s largest network of shelters for migrant youth announced Monday he is stepping down.

In a statement, Juan Sanchez said “recent events” convinced him and the nonprofit’s board of directors that the organization “would benefit from a fresh perspective and new leadership.”  

“Widespread misunderstanding of our business and unfair criticism of our people has become a distraction our employees do not deserve,” Sanchez said. “It’s time for new beginnings.”

In a letter sent to employees first published by VICE News, Sanchez also called the misunderstanding and criticism a distraction, but added it’s something he “can no longer bear.”

“This is a very difficult decision,” he said in the letter. “Southwest Key’s mission, community impact and people have been my life and inspiration every day for the last 32 years.”

In December, The New York Times reported the organization “possibly engaged in self-dealing” and found Sanchez had a salary of $1.5 million, which is “more than twice what his counterpart at the far larger American Red Cross made.”

Sanchez founded Southwest Key Programs in 1987 in San Antonio. It has has received over $1.8 billion in federal contracts since 2007.

Southwest Key is under investigation by the Justice Department for potential misuse of federal funds, has an internal financial audit underway and a child welfare group is conducting a top-to-bottom review.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement contracts with organizations like Southwest Key to house migrant children who arrived in the country alone to seek protections, or were separated from their parent after crossing the border.

Southwest Key operates migrant shelters in Arizona, California and Texas, with a capacity to hold about 5,013 minors.   

Its Arizona operations include 11 facilities in Glendale, Mesa, Peoria, Phoenix and Tucson. Southwest Key is licensed to serve 1,035 migrant children and teens in Arizona. It employs roughly 1,700 people in the state.

The organization almost lost all of its licenses to operate in the state after the Arizona Department of Health Services found consistent inefficiencies in background check records and training requirements, in violation of state statute.

Southwest Key and ADHS reached a settlement, and the operator agreed to close its largest Arizona shelter and gave up a license for a West Valley facility the federal government had shut down over reports of child abuse by staff.  

After 127 days of being under a state-imposed admissions freeze, ADHS recently allowed one of Southwest Key’s Phoenix shelters to resume receiving new migrant minors.  

A proposal to add state oversight of operations like Southwest Key has advanced in the legislature.

Southwest Key’s Chief Operations Officer Joella Brooks will be interim CEO. The organization said it will conduct a nationwide search to replace Sanchez.

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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