Records suggest MCSO didn’t fully investigate child abuse claims at migrant shelter

By: - December 26, 2018 9:09 am

A Southwest Key facility in Glendale. Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror

Public records released to the Arizona Mirror shed light into the three reports of child abuse that led the federal government to shut down a shelter for migrant minors in Youngtown in September.

The reports show neither the Southwest Key employees nor the minors involved were ever interviewed by law enforcement, and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office closed all three cases after only viewing security camera footage.   

Two of the alleged child abuse incidents occurred on Sept. 14 and the other on Sept. 21. None led to arrests or criminal charges, but two experts on child abuse said cases should have been sent to prosecutors for review.

A ProPublica investigation of hundreds of police reports of sexual assaults at shelters for migrant minors nationally found a similar practice, where “responding officers simply filed brief information reports about the incidents, without investigating them as potential crimes.”

In Youngtown, after watching surveillance footage in two of the three incidents MCSO decided not to investigate further because the deputies didn’t observe any criminal acts.

But in one case, an MCSO deputy said the footage showed a male employee, Michael Royce, pushing a boy, bear-hugging him from behind, kicking him in the leg and hitting his body. The boy, whose age was not disclosed, hit Royce in the groin with a ball and spit at him, according to the report.

Southwest Key staff didn’t want MCSO to interview the boy, Royce or employee Angelica Rodriguez, who told shelter security about the incident. The security officers called MCSO almost 24 hours later to investigate.

“The security staff stated the Southwest Keys (sic) administration staff did not want to press charges and the incident/disciplinary actions would be handled by the facilities (sic) director,” the MCSO deputy reported.

MCSO Southwest Key Youngtown 9-15-18 (Text)
Southwest Key spokesman Jeff Eller said the security employee “did not act in line with our policies and procedures and was terminated.”

It is unclear why MCSO deputies did not seek to conduct any interviews in the cases. An MCSO spokesman did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the agency’s handling of the cases.

The handling of the incident is troubling, said family law attorney Tamera Shanker.

The decision to press charges should be made by prosecutors, not employees of the company being investigated for potential child abuse, said Heidi Zoyhofski, an attorney for abused and neglected children who reviewed the reports at the Mirror’s request.

She said children in government custody are especially vulnerable, and best practices in Arizona are to conduct a physical or medical exam and a forensic interview of the child, collect evidence such as photographs, and submit the case to a state prosecutor.

“In my mind, the state needs to be sure it goes above and beyond and that any claims are investigated to the fullest and in compliance with the law,” Zoyhofski said.

The incident involving Royce and the boy happened Sept. 14 at around 6 p.m. Later that night, another employee, Yamilette Santos, dragged a seven-year-old girl by the leg to her bed, according to an MCSO report. That incident was reported to MCSO on Sept. 17.

On Sept. 18, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which is the custodial agency of migrant minors and oversees the contracts with shelter operators, stopped placing children in the facility. On Sept. 28, HHS shut it down.

On Sept. 21, another Youngtown shelter employee, Mauro Lopez, grabbed a minor who was blocking the door of a classroom by the arm and pulled the minor away, according to an MCSO report. The incident was reported within a few hours to MCSO.  

MCSO Southwest Key Youngtown 9-21-18 (Text)

HHS said in an October statement all Southwest Key employees involved in the three incidents of alleged physical abuse at Youngtown were fired.

The Youngtown facility was licensed to hold 139 children.

MCSO spokesman Sgt. Joaquin Enriquez didn’t respond to questions on why the extent of the investigations in these three cases was limited to watching surveillance footage, and why deputies didn’t press to investigate more.

Southwest Key is the country’s largest shelter operator for migrant minors. The organization was in the national spotlight this summer due to its role housing migrant children who were forcibly separated from their parents under the zero-tolerance policy of prosecuting migrants at the border, many who traveled to the U.S. to seek asylum.

Media reports also exposed a record of sexual misconduct allegations at Southwest Key and other incidents, including runaway cases.

Southwest Key nearly lost all of its licenses to operate in Arizona after it failed to provide evidence it had current and adequate background checks for its employees, as required by state law. Community groups called for more state oversight over Southwest Key’s shelters.

Southwest Key reached a settlement with the Arizona Department of Health Services on Oct. 24, and the operator surrendered two of its 13 licences in the state. One was for the Youngtown shelter and the other was in central Phoenix. The company has paid a $73,000 civil penalty to the state under the terms of the settlement.

The closed Phoenix shelter, located near the Phoenix Memorial Hospital, was licensed to hold 420 children. ADHS spokeswoman Melissa Blasius-Nuanez declined repeatedly to explain why the state agreed to shut down the facility, other than to say the operator voluntarily surrendered its license.

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