Arizona licenses for nonprofit housing migrant kids at risk

Arizona officials have moved to revoke the licenses for a nonprofit that houses immigrant children after it missed a deadline to show that all its employees passed background checks.

Texas-based Southwest Key demonstrated an "astonishingly flippant attitude" toward the state's concerns about delayed background checks for workers at its eight Arizona shelters, the state Department of Health said in a scathing letter Wednesday.

A state investigation this summer prompted by several reports of sexual abuse of immigrant children in Arizona found that some shelters had not conducted fingerprint checks for all employees.

Shelters that house immigrant children have come under scrutiny since the Trump administration introduced a "zero tolerance" policy that resulted in more than 2,900 children being separated from their families, most of whom have since been reunited.

Southwest Key was supposed to provide information updating Arizona on the required fingerprint checks by Sept. 14 but didn't do so on time. When it did, the spreadsheets it provided were out of context and impossible for the health department to decipher, said Dr. Cara Christ, the agency's director.

"Southwest Key's lack of ability to deliver a simple report on the critical protections these children have against dangerous felons demonstrate an utter disregard for Arizona law, the mutual agreement with the department, and calls into question the privilege you enjoy operating a health care institution in the state of Arizona," Christ said in a letter to the nonprofit.

Southwest Key has apologized and is working with the state to ensure it never misses a deadline again, spokesman Jeff Eller said.

"We have requested the opportunity to meet with (health department) leadership as soon as possible and know that having a strong partnership with the agency is incumbent upon us," Eller said in a statement. "We remain committed to meeting all Arizona licensing requirements — both required by law and voluntary — and doing so in a timely manner."

Arizona has filed notices of intent to revoke the licenses, which can be appealed. Southwest Key has several options to ensure it keeps its 13 Arizona licenses, such as requesting a hearing with a judge.

Southwest Key says it has only eight shelters but that some require multiple licenses. The AP previously reported it had 13 shelters based on information provided by the health department.

The state contends that each license is for a different physical location.

There are roughly 1,500 immigrant kids at Southwest Key shelters in Arizona and hundreds more in other states. As of July, the organization had received $356 million in 2018 to operate child detention centers across the U.S.

The majority of children who are held in Southwest Key shelters are unaccompanied minors who came to the U.S. without a parent or legal guardian.

Arizona has seen numerous allegations of sexual abuse at its shelters for immigrant children, including one made by the government of El Salvador, which said it received reports of three children, 12 to 17, who were sexually abused at unnamed shelters in Arizona.


Associated Press journalist Meghan Hoyer in Washington contributed to this report.