PHOENIX – The nation's largest provider of shelters for immigrant children has surrendered two of its licenses in Arizona following a state investigation that found the organization didn't have fingerprint records for some employees.
In an agreement announced Wednesday, Southwest Key surrendered its licenses for shelters in Phoenix and Youngtown and will pay a $73,000 fine. The Texas-based organization has 13 licenses to operate shelters in Arizona. Southwest Key also will stop admitting new immigrant children in its Arizona facilities unless the health department approves them.
The investigation by the Arizona Department of Health began this summer when several reports of abuse at shelters in the state became public.
Last month, the health department issued notices of intent to revoke the organization's licenses when Southwest Key missed a deadline to update it on fingerprint clearance cards, which are part of the background check process.
Under the agreement, Southwest Key will hire a third-party health care consultant to evaluate the company's quality-management practices and systems, hire an on-site state-approved "evaluator" at each of its 11 other facilities for at least a year and allow the health department to inspect its facilities without notice.
"We will fully and completely comply with this agreement," Southwest Key spokesman Jeff Eller said in a statement. "We are committed to making the improvements that are spelled out and we look forward to building on these changes for the future."
"This agreement, coupled with continued cooperation from our federal partners, will build a solid framework that provides a safe and therapeutic environment for children under Southwest Key's care," health department spokeswoman Melissa Blasius-Nuanez said in a statement.
Arizona has seen numerous allegations of sexual abuse at its many 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.
Last month, a former youth care worker was convicted of sexually abusing seven teenage boys at a Phoenix-area shelter for immigrant children.
In August, authorities arrested a 32-year-old man on allegations that he had molested a 14-year-old girl at a Southwest Key facility the previous month.
It's unclear how many children are being held in the facilities that are being shut down because the government doesn't allow Southwest Key to talk about the number of children in its care. The facilities being shut down, Casa Phoenix and Hacienda del Sol, are licensed for 420 children and 139 children, respectively.
Eller, the Southwest Key spokesman, said officials are working out the details of when those facilities will be cleared out.