A former Border Patrol agent who resigned from the agency after he was arrested on child pornography charges was later hired as a case manager at a major shelter for unaccompanied immigrant children in Brownsville, Texas Monthly has learned.
Ernesto Padron worked at Austin-based nonprofit Southwest Key’s Casa Padre shelter last year, where, as a case manager, he had direct access to unaccompanied immigrant minors. He had previously worked as a Border Patrol agent until his resignation in October 2010, when he was arrested in Brownsville for alleged possession of child pornography, a second-degree felony, according to the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office and publicly available Cameron County criminal court records. His case was later dismissed after a years-long case backlog allowed the statute of limitations to expire.
In an emailed statement, a Southwest Key spokesperson said the organization eventually found out that Padron had previously faced child pornography charges and suspended him immediately. The spokesperson said Padron remained suspended until May 2017, when he was one of 966 employees laid off by Southwest Key after the number of unaccompanied minors crossing the border decreased significantly that year, reducing the staffing needs throughout the nonprofit’s shelters. It’s unclear how long Padron had been working at the shelter before Southwest Key discovered his arrest record. Padron declined to comment on the record when reached by Texas Monthly.
Padron’s arrest record and status as a former case manager at Casa Padre comes to light at a moment when the facility is under a national microscope, as the Trump administration implemented a controversial “zero tolerance” immigration policy that has resulted in an increase in immigrant minors who have been separated from their parents by U.S. immigration enforcement after crossing into the country illegally or to request asylum. Trump administration officials said Tuesday that 2,342 children have been separated from 2,206 parents at the U.S.-Mexico border between May 5 and June 9. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the “zero tolerance” policy on April 6.
The 250,000-square-foot Casa Padre facility where Padron worked currently houses nearly 1,500 boys, ages ten through seventeen, and is expanding in expectation of a wave of more children. Southwest Key operates twenty-six shelters across the country, including seventeen in Texas. It is in the process of establishing an additional shelter for young children in Houston.
On January 7, 2008, an undercover FBI agent initiated an online chat session with Padron, and material alleged to be child pornography was exchanged, according to a statement from the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office. Following an investigation by the FBI, the Cameron County Sheriff’s Office, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Office of Professional Responsibility, and USBP Internal Affairs, Padron was arrested and charged for possession/promotion of child pornography. “Apparently he had been doing this for two or three years,” Cameron County Sheriff Omar Lucio told the Brownsville Herald shortly after Padron’s arrest. “As to the amount of material I’m not exactly sure, but it is a large amount.” Lucio declined to comment further when reached by Texas Monthly this week.
In December 2010 Padron’s case was submitted to the district attorney’s office. But the prosecution of Padron’s case inexplicably stalled. “Other than some supplemental work, no action was taken on the case file,” the statement from the district attorney’s office says. Under then-district attorney Armando Villalobos, the district attorney’s office had accumulated a large backlog of cases. The dysfunction continued as Villalobos was indicted on corruption charges in 2012. He later announced that he would not seek reelection and was eventually convicted and sentenced to thirteen years in prison.
Current Cameron County district attorney Luis Saenz took office in January 2013 and immediately reviewed the backlog of cases, including Padron’s. In April 2013, the district attorney’s office determined that the statute of limitations for Padron’s child pornography case had expired because the office had not filed the case before January 2011, and the case was then dismissed at intake. A new charge of tampering with evidence was brought against Padron in May 2013, but after a review of that case, the trial prosecutor determined that it too was barred by the statute of limitations, and the case was dismissed.
“In our hiring, extensive background checks are conducted on applicants; however, because Mr. Padron was not convicted of the charges you referenced (or any other disqualifying criminal charges), he was cleared for employment,” Southwest Key spokesperson Lizzie Chen wrote in an emailed statement to Texas Monthly. “When we became aware of Mr. Padron’s situation, he was immediately suspended, and he never worked at our shelter again.”
How did Southwest Key’s ‘extensive’ background checks miss Padron’s history? The charges against him have been and remain publicly available by searching for his name on Cameron County’s online criminal court records database.
How did Southwest Key’s “extensive” background checks miss Padron’s history? The charges against him have been and remain publicly available by searching for his name on Cameron County’s online criminal court records database. His child pornography arrest was also heavily covered by local news outlets, and those reports show up near the top of a simple Google search of Padron’s name. Southwest Key did not respond to questions about whether Padron’s background check included a Google search or phone calls to his former employers, such as Border Patrol. That Padron was still able to secure a job working directly with young children raises questions about Southwest Key’s ability to background check its employees, as well as the quality of care and safety of the children under its charge.
A preliminary reading of state inspection records shows that regulators have cited Southwest Key for failing to properly background check employees at shelters across the state. One shelter in Combes was cited for failing to “timely submit the information required to conduct a renewal background check” in June 2016, then was again cited for the same violation in February 2018. At a facility in northeast Houston, inspectors found in 2016 that two employees had not been checked through the State Child Abuse and Neglect registry before they were hired. At the same Houston shelter, inspectors found in January 2016 that Southwest Key was late to renew background checks on five employees, including one employee whose background check was renewed six months late. At a shelter in Montgomery County, inspectors found in June 2016 six employees whose background checks were renewed late, and in September of last year they found that a caregiver who had access to children had been hired despite failing a preemployment drug test.
Padron was hired for a role that frequently required close interactions with children who were particularly vulnerable in the absence of their parents and who were likely already suffering from severe trauma incurred during their dangerous migration. According to a promotional video published by Southwest Key in December 2015, the role of the case manager is “the heart of the program.” Case managers are responsible for reunifying unaccompanied children with their relatives as quickly as possible, and they frequently conduct interviews with minors. A current job listing for a Southwest Key case manager opening in Brownsville says that the position also requires employees to “Drive clients to facilitate program services,” and that it “may include transportation to court appointments, attorney visits, other appointments as per contractual requirements as needed,” and “may also include transporting youth within the United States if reunified.” Southwest Key did not respond to Texas Monthly’s requests seeking more information about Padron’s interactions with children at the shelter.
Southwest Key is federally contracted to run child immigration shelters by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is a program of the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), which falls underneath the larger umbrella of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. According to ACF’s Policy Guide, “care provider facilities must complete background investigations on all staff, contractors, and volunteers prior to hire to ensure the candidate is suitable for employment to work with minors in a residential setting.”
Among the minimum background check requirements outlined in the policy guide are an FBI fingerprint check of national and state criminal history repositories, and a child protective services check with the employee’s state of residence stretching back for the last five years. ACF’s policy guide also specifically notes that all employees, including part-timers and volunteers, who have “direct access to children or youth” must pass a background investigation. The policy mandates that care provider facilities ask all job applicants about previous misconduct, which is defined in the policy guide as “any criminal behavior, abuse, and/or neglect investigation, charge, arrest, civil adjudication, administrative adjudication, or conviction.” The care provider facility must also make an effort to contact past employers, documenting the results in the employee’s personnel file. If an employee omits previous misconduct or provides false information, ACF policy states that it is “grounds for termination or withdrawal of an offer of employment, as appropriate.” But after Southwest Key discovered Padron had not disclosed his child pornography arrest, they did not immediately fire him, instead choosing to suspend him before he was ultimately laid off.
“Care provider facilities are prohibited from hiring or utilizing the services of any applicant, contractor, or volunteer who has engaged in, attempted to engage in, or has been civilly or administratively adjudicated to have engaged in sexual abuse, sexual harassment, or any type of inappropriate sexual behavior,” the policy guide states.
ACF’s policy guide urges care provider facilities to contact HHS if they are unable to complete the necessary background checks and assures care provider facilities that they can include any additional costs accrued from the background check process into their annual budget plan. Once completed, the background checks are then placed in the employee’s personnel file, and must be submitted to ORR if the agency ever requests them. However, it is unclear from the policy guide whether federal reviews of background checks conducted by contracted care providers are regular occurrences. ACF did not respond to requests for comment.
Southwest Key and ACF have publicly stated that the security and safety of the children in their care is a top priority. Detailed background checks are also federally required for potential sponsors of unaccompanied minors who are held in facilities like Casa Padre.
As Casa Padre has drawn increasing attention nationwide, media, congressional delegations, and child health advocates have been given strictly monitored tours inside the facility. Their reports have consistently described a clean and orderly warehouse-like structure, converted from what used to be a Walmart superstore, complete with a recreation area outfitted with televisions, couches, and foosball tables. But a new report by the Texas Tribune and Reveal noted that state inspectors found 246 violations at the group’s sixteen facilities in the last three years.
Southwest Key is expanding Casa Padre in preparation for a sharp increase in unaccompanied minors, a direct result of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. According to the New York Times, cots are being added to sleeping areas, and Southwest Key has recently obtained a waiver from the State of Texas to expand the facility’s capacity. Southwest Key has received $1.5 billion from the federal government in the last decade and will receive over $458 million in 2018, per Bloomberg.
More staff hirings are in progress. According to its website, Southwest Key is currently hiring for all positions, including 25 case managers in Brownsville alone.