Southwest Key Programs, an Austin-based nonprofit that is federally contracted to house unaccompanied minors in 26 shelters across the country—and has recently been approved to open a new immigrant children’s center on Emancipation Avenue in Houston—has been cited for hundreds of violations by Texas state regulators during shelter inspections over the past three years.
The inspection records paint a much different picture of the conditions within Southwest Key’s shelters than the images that have come from strictly monitored tours granted in the past few weeks to media, which have generally shown clean, orderly, and well-lit shelter spaces. Even as Southwest Key’s shelters become a focus of nationwide scrutiny amid the ongoing family separation crisis at the border, the nonprofit has supporters within the immigrant advocate community. Immigration attorneys and pediatricians have been careful to aim their criticism at detention facilities and processing centers operated by federal immigration enforcement agencies and other shelters, where serious allegations of abuse and neglect—often far worse than what has shown up in Southwest Key’s state inspection reports—have already been publicly documented. But Southwest Key has a much larger footprint in Texas than any other federally contracted shelter provider, operating seventeen shelters here that hold thousands of children. Southwest Key also earns a larger cut of the federal funding to house unaccompanied immigrant minors than any other organization in the country. Despite hundreds of violations recorded at its shelters across the state in the past few years, Southwest Key’s shelters are expanding, and the nonprofit will receive $458 million from the federal government this year.
Details of the state inspection reports reviewed by Texas Monthly show that the violations range from the comparatively benign—like peeling paint in the bathrooms, rotten bananas, or inappropriately prepared chicken—to the more severe. For example, Southwest Key’s La Esperanza shelter in Brownsville self-reported a violation last year after an employee left a child who was known to be “upset” unsupervised in the bathroom for fifteen minutes, which led to her “self-harming,” according to records from the Texas Department of Health and Human Services. In 2015, Southwest Key self-reported a violation at the Casa Rio Grande shelter in San Benito, when a child urinated on himself in class after staff refused to let him go to the restroom. At the same Casa Rio Grande shelter in 2014, state inspectors found that a staff member “engaged in an inappropriate relationship” with a child. An August 2017 inspection found that two staff members at the Houston Mesa shelter in Northeast Houston “did not intervene when a child and staff member had an altercation, resulting in the staff member pushing the child.”
The state inspection records usually provide fairly detailed accounts of each violation, but some violation reports have no additional information beyond a citation of the state code that was found to have been broken. For example, in March 2018 the Houston Mesa shelter self-reported a violation that cites the section of the Texas Administrative Code that prohibits capital punishment, specifically the sub-section prohibiting workers from forcing a child to “[maintain] an uncomfortable physical position, such as kneeling, or holding his arms out,” but no additional information was included.
Frequently cited violations include children being left unsupervised in bathrooms or bedrooms for long periods of time, staff failing to stop fights, poor medical treatment for children, and lax background checks for employees.
At the Casa Quetzal shelter in Harris County alone, there were eight reported violations where staff had left children unsupervised, including one incident in May where the unsupervised child had access to a “tool/knife”; a March 2018 violation after three staffers forgot about a child in the restroom for more than twenty minutes; an incident last year when a child was left inside alone during a fire drill; and another violation where “a child was left unattended for an estimated 45 minutes until being discovered by staff.” At the Esperanza shelter in 2015, a self-reported violation showed staff left a child unattended for twenty minutes inside her room, until another child found her inside, crying.
Inspectors cited the Esperanza shelter in 2016 after reviewing video of a fight, which showed a staff member “standing and calling for backup and not mediating the fight.” After questioning the staffer, inspectors wrote that she told them “she was afraid of being hit and would have done the same thing again if she had to.” According to state records, a violation was self-reported at the Casa Rio Grande shelter in 2015 after a staff member left children alone in a room when “an altercation occurred”—he later “returned and saw the altercation and left once more.”
The Casa Padre shelter in Brownsville self-reported a violation in 2017 when a child who tested positive for a sexually transmitted disease did not receive medical treatment for nearly three weeks. At the Esperanza shelter, a violation was self-reported in 2015 after a child who was feeling sick was not given medical treatment, so he took medicine that was sneaked into the facility by another child. At the same shelter in 2015, one self-reported violation stated that “medical staff left rubbing alcohol accessible to youths entering the medical office; in consequence, a youth took and consumed the rubbing alcohol.” Casa Quetzal was cited in April after a child who was allergic to Tylenol was given the medicine anyway, despite a red band around her wrist indicating her allergy.
There were at least twenty violations citing Southwest Key’s Texas shelters for conducting late, incomplete, or insufficient background checks, and most of those individual violations were regarding background checks for multiple employees. The Casa Antigua shelter in San Benito was cited by inspectors in 2016 for failing to renew background checks for fifteen staff members within the required two-year window. That same year, inspectors cited the Casa Houston shelter in Southwest Houston for being late to renew background checks for 21 employees. Inspectors found in 2016 that two employees at Houston Mesa had not been checked through the State Child Abuse and Neglect registry before they were hired, and also found one employee whose background check was renewed six months late. At a shelter in Montgomery County last year, inspectors found that a caregiver who had access to children had been hired despite failing a preemployment drug test.
A spokesperson for Southwest Key told Texas Monthly last week that it conducts “extensive background checks” on all job applicants, and CEO Juan Sanchez has defended the nonprofit amid several media reports that have noted the shelters’s numerous violations. “We self-report allegations,” Sanchez told NPR last week. “So any time a child makes an allegation or a staff member makes an allegation, we are the ones that report that to the licensing department. Any allegation involves a staff member, we immediately suspend the staff member so they are out of the program, and we turn over the investigation to child care licensing. It is of utmost priority that we have staff in the program that have not engaged in any form of child abuse or neglect.”
Of the more than 206 notable violations reviewed by Texas Monthly, only 61 were designated by the state as having been “self-reported.” In at least one case, it appears Southwest Key did not self-report a major violation to state regulators. In 2017, Ernesto Padron was hired as a case manager at the Casa Padre shelter in Brownsville, but he was later suspended and laid off after Southwest Key discovered that he had resigned from his previous job as a Border Patrol agent after being arrested on a felony child pornography charge. Padron’s child pornography case was ultimately dismissed after a backlog at the Cameron County district attorney’s office allowed the case’s three-year statute of limitations to expire, but his arrest remained in public court records and was heavily documented in local news reports, which popped up near the top of a Google search of Padron’s name. Southwest Key told Texas Monthly last week that Padron’s arrest did not show up in their background check when he was hired.
But no background check-related violations have been self-reported to the state by Southwest Key at the Casa Padre shelter in the past three years, and the state did not report any background check violations discovered during inspections, indicating regulators may not have been notified of any suspension or disciplinary action that Southwest Key may have taken against Padron. Southwest Key did not respond to Texas Monthly‘s questions about this.
Southwest Key has been a major recipient of federal funding to house unaccompanied minors since 2014. The program’s shelters have been expanding to meet the expected influx of immigrant children, ever since the Trump administration implemented its “zero tolerance” immigration policy, which has resulted in the separation of more than two thousand children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border since early May. Southwest Key has received $1.5 billion from the federal government in the last decade and will receive more than $458 million in 2018, according Bloomberg.
At the same time, Southwest Key has faced increased national scrutiny in the past few weeks. Politicians and some immigrant advocates have been critical of Southwest Key’s lack of transparency and of its role in the family separation crisis, while the organization’s booming profits and quality of care have fallen under the microscope. State Representative Ana Hernandez, a Democrat from Houston, asked the Texas Department of Health and Human Services to stop its process to grant a license to Southwest Key for a new shelter in Houston, a project Houston mayor Sylvester Turner has also publicly opposed. Even actor Samuel L. Jackson has joined the opposition to Southwest Key, posting several tweets that were critical of the nonprofit’s role in the family separation crisis.
Southwest Key has largely struggled to handle this new (and generally unflattering) spotlight. Southwest Key shut down its main website due to heavy web traffic, and a temporary webpage has remained in its place for days. And after President Trump signed an executive order effectively ending family separations at the border by allowing for children to remain with their parents as they are prosecuted under the “zero tolerance” policy, Southwest Key released a statement against family separations. “We believe keeping families together is better for the children, parents and our communities, and we remain committed to providing compassionate care and reunification,” the statement said. But it was not well received on social media, as commenters questioned the sentiment and timing of the statement.
Despite the barrage of criticism and accurate media coverage, Southwest Key has been steadfastly defensive of the quality of care provided within its shelters. Sanchez penned an op-ed in the Dallas Morning News, pushing back against what he called “misrepresentations” about Southwest Key in the media. “Safe reunification, as it has always been, remains our focus,” he wrote. “Providing safe, loving, caring protection for children is our day to day…. Our staff is busy navigating daily operations and taking care of children, just as we’ve always done. We’re working to get the truth out, in the face of many misstatements: We don’t pay attention to the swirl of politics. We don’t put kids in cages. We don’t run detention centers.”