As number of kids detained soared, so did accusations

December 19, 2018 GMT

              Chart shows number of children in federal shelters.;

              Chart shows number of children in federal shelters.;

              Chart shows number of children in federal shelters.;
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Chart shows number of children in federal shelters.;
1 of 5
Chart shows number of children in federal shelters.;

PHOENIX (AP) — The number of children being held in immigrant shelters has soared over the past few years, bringing with it a number of issues, especially in Arizona, where several workers in charge of caring for them have been charged with sexually-based crimes.

In Arizona, where over 800 immigrant kids are being held, the state’s largest provider of shelters has been forced to shut down two facilities over improper background checks for employees. The state health department launched an investigation this summer after reports of abuse at different shelters operated by Texas-based Southwest Key, which is also the largest provider of shelters for immigrant children in Arizona.


Over 1,600 kids were detained in Arizona earlier this year, until Southwest Key was forced to close two large facilities in the Fall. That number is now about 800.

Still, that’s only a fraction of the 14,300 immigrant children in detention centers and residential facilities nationwide.

Most are being held in facilities with over 100 kids, according to confidential government data obtained and cross-checked by The Associated Press.

The public has been severely limited in what it knows about how many youths are held at facilities, but the AP has obtained data detailing how many kids are where. The policies of President Donald Trump’s administration, including extended background checks and deportation referrals for adult relatives who come forward to take the children in, have resulted in a spike in more kids being held, and they’re often held for longer periods of time.

In Arizona, two shelters, one in Mesa and another in Tucson, hold over 100 kids at any given time. But that’s only after two other shelters that had much higher capacity had to close down in the agreement with the state.

Before Casa Phoenix closed in November, it had been housing nearly 400 kids for several months. The other facility that closed, in Youngtown, housed over 130 children in the months before it closed.

Arizona has seen numerous allegations of sexual abuse, 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.

In August, police arrested a 33-year-old man on suspicion of sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl at the same Southwest Key shelter where just weeks earlier first lady Melania Trump had taken a tour.


In September, a former youth care worker was convicted of sexually abusing seven teenage boys at a Phoenix-area shelter for immigrant children.

Until now, public information has been limited about the number of youths held at each facility overseen by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, even for attorneys representing the kids. But the AP obtained data showing the number of children in individual ORR detention centers, shelters and foster care programs for nearly every week over the past 20 months, revealing in detail the expanse of a program at the center of the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown.

Administration officials said increased need has driven them to expand the number of beds available for migrant children from 6,500 last fall to 16,000 today.

“Expanding a mix of permanent and temporary bed capacity is a prudent step to ensure that the Border Patrol can continue its vital national security mission to prevent illegal migration, trafficking and protect the borders of the United States,” said Mark Weber, a spokesman for U.S. Health and Human Services, which oversees ORR.

In Arizona, the agreement Southwest Key made with the state health department this year came after it failed to get the proper fingerprint clearance from all employees on time.

Dr. Cara Christ, the health department director, chided Southwest Key.

“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.

Under the agreement, Southwest Key was required to 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.

Health Department spokeswoman Melissa Blasius-Nuanez said Southwest Key had hired the consultant as the settlement required, along with some monitors.

“We will fully and completely comply with this agreement,” fellow Southwest Key spokesman Jeff Eller said in a statement when the settlement was reached. “We are committed to making the improvements that are spelled out and we look forward to building on these changes for the future.”


Read AP’s national investigation into the government’s shelter program for migrant children here.