UPDATED: Danger Menaces 300 Migrant Children in Off-Limits Compound in Tucson

Southwest Key Programs at 1601 N Oracle Road near Drachman Street, north of downtown in Tucson
Southwest Key Programs at 1601 N Oracle Road near Drachman Street, north of downtown in Tucson
Southwest Key Programs at 1601 N Oracle Road near Drachman Street, north of downtown in Tucson
Southwest Key Programs operates an off-limits compound at 1601 N Oracle Road near Drachman Street, north of downtown in Tucson

9-19-18 UPDATE: Arizona moves to revoke licenses from all Southwest Key migrant-children shelters https://goo.gl/qVxUA9 The government contractor failed to provide proof its workers had the required background checks.

Up to 300 migrant children ages 5 to 17 are warehoused at a dangerous facility run by Southwest Key Programs in Tucson.  “There seem to be some real problems here,” said state Representative Kirsten Engel, speaking at a recent meeting of the Democrats of Greater Tucson.

The Arizona Department of Health Services (DHS) made an inspection and found “numerous violations that employees have fingerprint cards, and space and privacy for kids.” DHS negotiated an agreement with Southwest Key giving DHS the power to make unannounced inspections.

“It’s a black box,” she said of the compound, which is closed to the public. “When we were at Southwest Key there was a representative from the Denver regional office of the HHS (the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), but we didn’t get a lot of information from him.”

Southwest Key is a massive private contractor that is paid $485 million by the federal government to warehouse 5,200 children in 26 facilities in Arizona, California, and Texas. In Arizona, it houses 1,500 children in 13 different shelters.

The children are technically not incarcerated. “They are in a ‘mandatory temporary child shelter situation,'” Engel said. “They are in the hands of a private entity. One of the issues is that it is all being done by private contract and is not being adequately overseen by a state agency.”

Danger of child abuse

For example, Southwest Key has no duty to notify the state DHS when a crime is committed at the compound. “Incidents of child abuse have taken place at Southwest Key facilities” in Tucson and Glendale, Engel said. “There were three arrests of Southwest Key employees and a conviction for sexual abuse of some of the children.”

  • A 15-year-old boy alleged in 2015 that Oscar Trujillo, a Southwest Key employee in Tucson, touched him in his genital area over his clothing and tried to pull down his pants, court documents show. Trujillo was convicted of class 5 sexual abuse.
  • A girl at the Glendale Southwest Key facility accused a staff member in May 2017 of making sexually suggestive comments to her and dancing inappropriately in front of other children there.
  • Three female employees at the Tucson facility said in 2015 that a maintenance staff member harassed them repeatedly. One of the women told police that her complaint to managers wasn’t taken seriously, and she feared retaliation for coming forward.

The Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project visits the Tucson location two times a week, offering “know your rights” presentations to the children. “These kids are as young as 5 years old and they are told that if they are abused or harmed, here is where you report it,” Engel said. “Unless a child makes a report himself, or another employee reports an incident they witnessed, it seems that it is not going to be reported. This is a very concerning situation. You cannot expect these kids who don’t speak English to report on a staff member who is abusing them.”

No textbooks, no certified teachers

Hundreds of children are captured at the border when they cross over by themselves, or when they are separated from their parents.

After lobbying for weeks, a team of state legislators including Rep. Pamela Power Hannley got permission to visit the secret complex which has been operated since 2014 by Southwest Key Programs, a federal government contractor. It was a tightly-controlled North-Korea style tour, where few questions were answered and legislators were told repeatedly that the “employees are doing the very best job they can.”

The legislators were shown one classroom where 25 children ages 14 to 17 were given a whiteboard to write on. There are no textbooks and no certified teachers. “We were told that it is just an issue of how quickly the staff can work out the arrangments and assurances that it is safe to reunify these kids with a family member,” Engel said.

“The rooms didn’t look like classrooms. It was a modified hotel room in which you put a lot of kids. That is not education,” Engel said.

The children, many of whom don’t speak English are detained from 7 weeks up to more than 8 months. They are allowed to make two phone calls a week, presuming a 5-year-old can make a phone call or that any of the children know how to reach their parents.

Southwest Key is licensed by DHS as a ‘behavioral health facility,’ however, “DHS just basically ignores the situation. It has no jurisdiction over any abuse at the facilities. Unless there some kind of problem violating their licensing involving fire extinguishers or the staff-to-child ratio, there is no licensing violation.” 

“It seems very inadequate when you compare it to how we otherwise would take care of kids in this kind of situation,” Engel said. “The closest analogy would be to consider it a group home run by the Arizona Department of Child Services, which does not have a great history of taking care of kids. We need to have a much more comprehensive background checks on who works at the facility. There should be a criminal background check to keep out anyone who’s been accused of abusing a child, but where the case has not risen to the level of a criminal conviction.”


  1. I am very skeptical that the kids are mostly all 16, that only 8 were separated from their parents or family members at the border, or that the vast majority have only been there 55-60 days. Until you see their full files and independent attorneys have full access to these kids, I think you should be skeptical too.

  2. Ward 3 Councilman Paul Durham also visited recently. Here’s his comments from his 8/31/18 newsletter:Southwest Key

    “As regular readers know, I have been trying to get a tour of the Southwest Key facility, named La Estrella del Norte, on Oracle Road since June. My office was finally successful in gaining access. This morning I was joined by Supervisor Bronson, Vice Mayor Fimbres and Council Members Romero and Cunningham on a tour of the facility. We were joined by the local staff leadership as well as Geraldo Rivera, Associate Vice President of Immigrant Children’s Services for Southwest Key, Kelly Aielb, Regional Director for Southwest Key, Ana Navarro, Service Director for Education and Unaccompanied Minors for Southwest Key in Arizona and Debra Thomas, Federal Field Specialist for the Office of Refugee Resettlement Unaccompanied Children’s Operations for Western Arizona.

    Through conversation with staff and children in the facility, I was able to learn a bit more about the children in the facility and their daily routines. Importantly, I was also able to start the process for the City of Tucson to develop a productive and supportive relationship with facility staff for the benefit of these children.

    So what did we learn about the kids that are there? Well, there are currently 295 children in the facility, 240 of whom are boys. Most of the kids are sixteen and are from Guatemala, although I also spoke with children from Mexico (and staff report housing children from throughout the Americas at different times). The average stay ranges from 55-60 days for most of the kids; but, they also have one child who has been there for 330 days. Eight of the kids they currently house were separated from a parent, in each case a parent who has since been deported. In total the staff has worked with 81 kids who were subjected to family separation as part of Trump’s zero tolerance approach.

    The educational attainment of the children is all over the place. Each child gets assessed and placed in a group educational cohort accordingly. I saw children in their classrooms and also visited their library and other club rooms. Additionally, each child works with a case manager and a clinician as well as medical and other support staff.
    At the time of my tour, some of the residents were in the dining room waiting for lunch. Our group toured the kitchen and saw the healthy lunch that was being prepared there.

    My interactions with children at the facility were positive. Children shared that they spoke twice a week with their family members. I heard personal stories about why children came, the horrors they had faced at home and in the first couple days after being apprehended by Border Patrol, and a bit about their dreams. They appeared to feel at ease in the facility, surrounded by new friends who have similar background and have experienced similar challenges.

    Let me hit on a few important topics that we discussed. First, Southwest Key staff shared with me their willingness to partner with TUSD to ensure that every child in their facility has full educational offerings available. I understand that each organization needs to sign an MOU and then the Southwest Key board will make the final determination. I shared my support for this formal partnership.

    Second, I asked Southwest Key leadership about whether they had changed their hiring and employee review process in light of recent charges of sexual assault and misconduct against former employees. Previously and now, Southwest Key implements a fingerprint background clearance for all employees as well as other forms of vetting. They also shared that the reason that charges were able to be filed against former Southwest Key employees was because the incidents were reported by Southwest Key to begin with. While I appreciate these efforts, I also believe that this facility needs to be more transparent to residents of Tucson for the community to build trust in Southwest Key. The tour I received today was an important first step toward that goal of increasing transparency.

    This brings me to my third point. My visit today is a beginning of what I hope will be an ongoing and collaborative relationship between staff at the Tucson Southwest Key facility and the City of Tucson. My colleagues on Mayor and Council extended their support to the children, and the staff that serves them. Specifically, Council Members Romero, Cunningham, Fimbres and myself offered to introduce the children into community spaces in Tucson through regular field trips. Even more important, I intend to facilitate regular dialogue between facility leadership and the City of Tucson to ensure that children at this facility receive the best care possible and know that they are welcome here. I’m pleased that we were able to get this conversation started. It is my sincere hope that my office will be successful in keeping it going to the benefit of children housed with Southwest Key in Tucson.”

Comments are closed.