A shelter for immigrant children on Campbell Avenue in Phoenix run by the government contractor Southwest Key. An employee at the shelter was alleged to have pursued an inappropriate relationship with a minor in 2017, according to state records.EXPAND
A shelter for immigrant children on Campbell Avenue in Phoenix run by the government contractor Southwest Key. An employee at the shelter was alleged to have pursued an inappropriate relationship with a minor in 2017, according to state records.
Joseph Flaherty

Southwest Key Employees Preyed on Detained Migrant Kids, Records Say

Newly obtained records allege more abuse of detained migrant children by nonprofit federal contractor Southwest Key, which has faced increased scrutiny following harsh Trump administration policies.

The records, including an internal Southwest Key investigative report from the Arizona Department of Health Services, reveal accusations that staffers preyed on undocumented immigrant kids at facilities run by the nonprofit federal contractor.

One employee at a Phoenix facility for migrant children pursued an inappropriate relationship with a child last year, according to state records.

Another Phoenix shelter employee was investigated in 2017 for inappropriate sexual behavior with a detained minor after a colleague alerted her superiors to the alleged case of child abuse.

The new records add to the growing number of allegations that Southwest Key staff preyed on minors detained at shelters in Arizona.

On Thursday, ProPublica reported that federal authorities have charged a Southwest Key youth care worker, Levian Pacheco, with 11 sex offenses after Pacheco, who is HIV-positive, allegedly molested eight detained boys at the firm's Mesa shelter in 2016 and 2017. Five of the undocumented boys initially denied or did not disclose the abuse when interviewers and staff questioned them, according to ProPublica.

And on Tuesday, a 32-year-old Southwest Key employee was arrested and charged with child molestation, sexual abuse, and aggravated assault after allegedly sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl detained at one of the nonprofit’s Phoenix shelters in June.

A spokesperson for the nonprofit, Jeff Eller, said in an email about the new complaints uncovered by Phoenix New Times that Southwest Key reported them at the time and began an internal investigation.

“Appropriate actions” were taken with employees, Eller said. But he refused to elaborate on the outcomes.

“Southwest Key Programs does extensive work to prevent all forms of abuse,” the nonprofit said in a statement. “When these rare situations occur, all staff involved adhere to our strict protocols.”

Yet another complaint obtained by New Times from ADHS details a hostile work environment within a Phoenix office of Southwest Key. In the complaint, a whistleblower alleged that a supervisor made “derisively racist” comments about detained children based on their nationality.

According to a complaint submitted in February 2017 by a person whose name has been taken out of ADHS records, a child held at Southwest Key’s Campbell Avenue shelter in Phoenix claimed to have an inappropriate relationship with a staff member while at the shelter.

The staff member was accused of sending inappropriate messages and giving a Valentine’s Day box of chocolates to the child. The employee continued the relationship after the minor left the Southwest Key shelter to live with a parent.

“Since minor’s release from the shelter, the staff member has continuously been in contact with the minor via text, phone calls, and Facebook," the complaint said.

The Southwest Key employee is described in the complaint as female and around 19 years old.

The child’s mother discovered a two-page typed letter in “near perfect” Spanish from the Southwest Key staffer, which the mother described as a “grooming” attempt.

According to the complaint, the child received a “coloring page that states, ‘Te amo,’” – “I love you,” in Spanish – and a love note in a heart shape accompanied by the chocolate box.

The Arizona Department of Child Safety and the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement were contacted as a result of the discovery, according to the individual who submitted the complaint.

This particular Southwest Key staff member also was involved in an inappropriate relationship with another minor, according to the child's mother.

Confronted with a complaint detailing potential child abuse, ADHS declined to act, deferring to investigators at the Department of Child Safety.

ADHS responded to the unnamed individual who submitted the complaint on February 23 to say that the complaint was closed because allegations of child abuse fall under the jurisdiction of first responders or child protective services.

As a result of another allegation of sexual abuse during the same year, Southwest Key scrutinized the conduct of another one of the nonprofit's Phoenix employees.

New Times obtained the internal Southwest Key investigation, which was reported by the nonprofit to ADHS, through a records request to the state agency.

Southwest Key youth care worker Brenda Betanzos was the subject of an investigation beginning in late August 2017, after she was alleged to have been in an inappropriate relationship with a minor at Southwest Key’s Phoenix Lighthouse facility located on 14th Street.

The investigation began after Rosa Flores, a Southwest Key shift supervisor at the Hacienda del Sol shelter in Youngtown, took a phone call from a former employee.

The former staff member, whose name was blacked out of the report ADHS later made of the investigation, reportedly told Flores that Betanzos had been in a relationship with a minor who had been held for a lengthy period of time at the Phoenix facility.

The report describes the former employee telling Flores that Betanzos “had already done a lot of things in the facility.”

As one example, Betanzos and the minor were in a phone booth room together for over 30 minutes, with the employee saying “it was not because the phone call was failing to connect it was because they were doing something else,” according to the account from Flores.

Flores didn’t divulge more specific details, according to the investigation.

When Flores asked whether Bentanzos and the minor were “making out or did everything,” the former employee indicated that Betanzos had “done everything” with the minor.

The former employee also said that Betanzos was planning to leave her job soon "to be with client freely," and referred to the minor's upcoming birthday. The age of the client was redacted in the report.

Betanzos, who had worked at the Southwest Key Lighthouse location since June 2016, also allegedly gave a bracelet from Hawaii to the minor.

The gift of the bracelet was reported to the shift leader, and afterward, Betanzos told the minor that they had to stop talking because she was being investigated, the former employee told Flores.

However, when Flores told the former employee that she needed to report their phone call because it described a policy violation, the ex-employee reacted by saying that she would deny everything; Betanzos was a “very good friend of hers,” Flores reported.

In an interview with Southwest Key officials, Betanzos said that her relationship with the minor had always been professional, according to the internal report.

As for the bracelet, Betanzos admitted that she lent it to the minor, but said that it was not a gift. Regarding the phone booth incident, Betanzos said that she explained why she was with the minor for so long to another employee at the time. The report does not describe what Betanzos told the other employee.

Betanzos was suspended pending an investigation, according to the report.

The Arizona Department of Child Safety and local law enforcement were contacted, but the outcome of the investigation is unclear. A spokesperson for DCS declined to comment on the allegations.

According to the ADHS report, the minor visited a child advocacy center – one of the Arizona centers dedicated to assisting victims and investigators in child abuse cases – at the request of a law enforcement official Southwest Key contacted.

After the visit, a clinician at the advocacy center reported that the child “made no disclosures," suggesting that the minor did not describe the abuse.

Betanzos could not be reached for comment.

Another ADHS complaint from the same month describes a hostile work environment at a Southwest Key building known as Casa Phoenix, located on South Seventh Avenue.

On February 10, 2017, an anonymous Phoenix whistleblower within Southwest Key emailed officials at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (the agency tasked with administering housing services for undocumented youth), Southwest Key staff, and media outlets.

The whistleblower said that a Southwest Key program director, Maria Rios, was overheard making “derisively racist comments about some of the minors … apparently based on their Country of Origin.”

The complaint also describes a "demeaning" atmosphere that resulted in lax oversight.

Lower-level Southwest Key staffers were blamed for errors, the complaint says, with some subjected to harassment in the form of veiled threats and blacklisting by upper management.

It’s unclear what actions, if any, Southwest Key took in response.

When asked about these abuse allegations and complaints, a DCS spokesperson said the agency cannot comment due to confidentiality laws.

"We can’t release information regarding abuse and neglect investigations, unless it involves the death or near death of a child," DCS public information officer Darren DaRonco wrote in an email.

Likewise, an ADHS spokesperson would not address the specific allegations of abuse, instead directing a reporter to a public statement from ADHS Director Cara Christ.

"ADHS is doing everything within our authority to address the issues we are hearing about," Christ said in the letter posted to the ADHS website yesterday.

Southwest Key operates eight shelters in Arizona, including several in the Phoenix metro area, and maintains 13 facilities licensed by ADHS.

The Austin-based nonprofit operates other shelter facilities in Texas and California. Southwest Key is a big provider of shelters for children detained at the border and has benefited from increasingly large contracts year over year from the federal government, adding up to over $450 million in fiscal year 2018 alone.

Southwest Key runs shelters for children who are apprehended after crossing the border alone, but recently the nonprofit has detained kids who were forcibly separated from their parents by immigration authorities under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.

At the height of the furor over the child separations, on June 26 a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to reunify separated children with their parents. Federal agencies, however, have struggled to track down detained parents – an estimated 463 parents may have been deported already without their children – in order to meet court-ordered deadlines for reunification.

Other recent reports have documented child abuse and inappropriate conduct by Southwest Key staff members in Arizona, as well as administrative lapses, with some incidents leading to criminal charges and civil penalties.

A Southwest Key employee in Tucson was convicted of sexually abusing a detained minor in 2015, the Arizona Republic reported.

A Southwest Key shelter in Glendale was cited by ADHS for restraining a child for 37 minutes in violation of Arizona law on Christmas Day in 2016, New Times previously reported. ADHS assigned Southwest Key a $500 civil penalty for the violation.

The agency fined other Arizona Southwest Key facilities for missed deadlines related to facility re-licensure, and the failure to maintain adequate fingerprint records, which are used for background checks on employees who work with vulnerable populations.

Eller, the Southwest Key spokesperson, said in an email that children in shelters are informed upon arrival of their right to be free from abuse or neglect. Phones are preprogrammed to allow minors to call 911, Child Protective Services, and the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Employees undergo background and fingerprint checks, Eller said, and are trained on their legal obligation to report abuse or neglect, as well as “appropriate boundaries.”

Southwest Key said in a statement, “We do internal reviews and we act immediately, without fail, as soon as we are made aware of a problem until the situation is fully dealt with to the extent it calls for."

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