Recent state inspections of Southwest Key shelters that house migrant children show that some employees did not have adequate background checks on file.
Gov. Doug Ducey’s administration released the inspection reports on Thursday after ordering the Arizona Department of Health Services to check the facilities starting last month.
One of Southwest Key’s Phoenix shelters and its Tucson shelter were both cited for having employees without fingerprint clearance cards on file within the state mandated time frame, according to a report released by ADHS on Thursday. Southwest Key is the country’s largest operator of immigrant youth shelters.
All employees at the shelters are required to have fingerprint clearance cards on file within seven days of being hired. The Department of Public Safety issues the clearance cards after a thorough background check to disqualify people with certain crimes on record from working with vulnerable populations.
The fingerprint cards weed out employees who have previously committed sex offenses and other crimes. The records do not indicate that persons barred from obtaining the clearance had worked at the facilities, only that Southwest Key failed to comply with regulations to have the records on file within specified timeframes.
Gov. Doug Ducey ordered ADHS to inspect all of the Southwest Key facilities in light of news reports of sexual abuse at some of the Arizona shelters being used to house migrant children.
At the Tucson facility, ADHS found eight employees who received their fingerprint clearance outside of the required timeframe. ProPublica reported a youth care worker at the Tucson shelter was convicted of groping a 15-year-old boy.
At the Casa Phoenix facility, located near Seventh Avenue and Buckeye Road, one employee went 20 months without a fingerprint clearance card, according to ADHS. This is the same facility Gov. Doug Ducey and his wife, Angela, toured in late June.
Southwest Key has 2,061 employees in Arizona.
An Arizona Capitol Times review of the nonprofit’s state records show that it has had infractions in the past, including the failure to maintain fingerprint records at a Mesa facility, which came with a $1,000 fine. In another instance, the company was fined $500 after a resident was restrained in a Glendale shelter last year.
In the most recent round of inspections, several of the Southwest Key facilities were cited for other reasons, including some employee personnel records not showing proof that employees are tuberculosis-free, and not indicating that Southwest Key made a good-faith effort to contact employees’ previous employers. Poisonous or toxic chemicals were also unlocked, according to ADHS.
Some of the facilities were cited for not having the required square footage per resident or not having enough space between beds. Others were cited for not having bedroom or bathroom doors as required.
ADHS Director Cara Christ said while Southwest Key was cited for some violations as a result of the surprise inspections, the deficiencies do not constitute an immediate threat to the safety and well-being of the children at the shelters.
“After hundreds of hours of inspections and reviews, I am confident Southwest Key is providing care within the law and Arizona’s established standards of care,” she wrote in a letter to Ducey.
Southwest Key views the eight sites it operates in Arizona as shelters, but ADHS classifies them as 13 facilities because the nonprofit holds 13 behavioral health residential facilities licenses.
Three of the 13 facilities — two in Phoenix and one in Mesa — were found to have no violations.
The state has limited oversight over the Southwest Key shelters because they fall under the federal government’s jurisdiction. But ADHS and Southwest Key have come to an agreement that will allow the state to increase unannounced inspections of the shelters. Typically, ADHS can only conduct routine facility checks or follow up on a specific complaint.
ADHS also required Southwest Key to verify that all of their current employees have valid fingerprint cards within 30 days. Southwest Key will also have to report to ADHS any corrective action taken following the state’s findings.
Southwest Key spokesman Jeff Eller said his company looks forward to working with ADHS to correct the reported defficies. The nonprofit has agreed to begin corrective action immediately, he added.
“We fully support the expanded oversight they want to do,” he said.
Ducey spokesman Daniel Ruiz said the state will ensure Southwest Key corrects the violations listed in the ADHS report.
The Southwest Key shelters are a hot topic in Arizona’s political scene, with legislative Democrats and candidates for statewide office calling on Ducey to order the state to inspect all facilities holding migrant children.
Ducey was largely quiet on the issue until he told the Capitol Times in an interview that he was “horrified” by reports of sexual abuse at some Southwest Key facilities.
You can read the letter to the governor below.