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Southwest Key Programs Executives Discuss Conditions Of Migrant Shelters


Two thousand, three hundred - that is the number of children estimated to have been separated from their parents at the border since the Trump administration instituted its zero-tolerance policy.


The president ended family separation with a swipe of his pen this afternoon. But for the moment, many of those children along with thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children remain in shelters. In Texas, 16 of those shelters are run by Southwest Key programs. That includes a shelter in Brownsville, Texas, a shelter which houses about 1,500 boys and has been the subject of much attention in recent days.

KELLY: Dr. Juan Sanchez is the company's founder and CEO, and Alexia Rodriguez is vice president of immigrant children's services and legal counsel. And they both join me now. Welcome to you both.

JUAN SANCHEZ: Thank you. It's good to be...

ALEXIA RODRIGUEZ: Thank you for having us.

SANCHEZ: It's good to be here. Yes.

KELLY: Let me ask you both this. What was the impact for you and the facilities that you run when this zero-tolerance crackdown policy went into effect this spring? Were you ready for it?

SANCHEZ: Well, yes and no. We knew that - it came very quickly actually. And so we began to get a lot more kids referred to our facilities. And so as the kids kept coming, we then moved very quickly to provide our staffing that we needed for those facilities. But, you know, the staff has to be trained for an entire month. So it's not like you just hire somebody and put them straight on to be working with these kids. So in a sense, yes, we got caught off guard by it ramping up so quickly. And we've hired now all the staff we need, but it took us a while to be able to do that.

KELLY: I want to let you both respond directly to a couple of the questions that have been raised about your operation. The first springs from data. This is from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. The data shows that in the last six months, 16 allegations of abuse were made about Southwest Key facilities in the state of Texas. They include allegations of sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect, medical abuse. A number of these have been ruled out because of lack of evidence. I understand at least four are still pending. My first question is, can you give any update on the status of these cases?

RODRIGUEZ: Well, we would need to know more specifics about which cases and be able to provide you with the facts and details on each one of those. What I can say, Mary Louise, is that we self-report allegations. So any time a child makes an allegation or a staff member makes an allegation, we are the ones that report that to the licensing department.

At that point, if any allegation involves a staff member, we immediately suspend the staff member so they are out of the program, and we turn over the investigation to child care licensing. It is of utmost priority that we have staff in the program that have not engaged in any form of child abuse or neglect. And in fact we have a zero-tolerance policy on child abuse and neglect in our handbook that every employee receives at our company.

KELLY: I want to ask you about something that has gotten a lot of attention. And that is reports that staff are prohibited from providing physical comfort to children, including very small children. Is that true at Southwest Key facilities?

SANCHEZ: Absolutely not true, Mary Louise. You know, I would have been down there in this facility a lot in the last couple of weeks.

KELLY: Which facility are you talking about?

SANCHEZ: Down...

KELLY: Brownsville?

SANCHEZ: Down in Brownsville, yes, and a couple of our facilities. But what I see is our staff hugging these kids and giving them as much laughter and as much compassion and as much love as they can. So I don't know where this thing that kids are not allowed to be hugged or to be touched came from, but it's absolutely not what we do.

KELLY: Let me allow you to respond directly to a former Southwest Key employee who we interviewed on NPR. This - the name is Antar Davidson. He quit recently because the shelter where he worked, which was in Tucson in Arizona, he said didn't have the trained staff to handle a lot of the younger, more traumatized children coming in. And he told us this moment that was the breaking point for him - when he said he was asked to tell two siblings who were 6 and 10 that they couldn't hug each other.


ANTAR DAVIDSON: They called me over the radio, and they wanted me to translate to these kids that the rule of the shelter is that they are not allowed to hug. And these are kids had just been separated from their mom - basically just huddling and hugging each other in a desperate attempt to remain together.

KELLY: Dr. Sanchez, let me let you respond to that. For the record, is there a policy that would prohibit touching, hugging in Southwest Key shelters?

SANCHEZ: Absolutely not.

RODRIGUEZ: It - actually, Mary Louise, what I'd like to add is that in stark contrast to what this gentleman said, we actually have a touch policy in our operations manual which has been there for years. And that manual describes how to appropriately touch a child in our care 'cause it has to be appropriate touching, right?

KELLY: Sure.

RODRIGUEZ: I mean, we don't want to engage in child abuse or, you know, any sort of allegation thereof, right? So it clearly lays out, OK, it has to be culturally relevant, it has to be age-appropriate, et cetera, et cetera. And that policy has been in place for years, Mary Louise...

KELLY: And hasn't changed at all in recent days.

RODRIGUEZ: ...And has not changed. No, ma'am, it has not.

KELLY: Last thing to ask you both about, which is the money at stake here. Bloomberg is reporting this week that the federal government plans to pay your company nearly half a billion dollars this year to care for immigrant children. Is that figure accurate?

SANCHEZ: Not the way we've looked at it. It's less than that by about a hundred million.

KELLY: So more in the ballpark of 400 million that you're being contracted for?

SANCHEZ: About 400, yes, approximately.

KELLY: And more contracts keep coming in.

SANCHEZ: Well, they're not more contracts because we have the same kind of contracts. What is happening in those cases where we absolutely need to - like now, because there's more children there, there's a need to increase staff. And so it's adding to the contracts that we have. It's not new contracts.

RODRIGUEZ: And, Mary Louise, I'd like to add that we are getting paid to do more work, right? So back in 2010, we served approximately 500 children a day. We are now serving approximately 5,000 children a day. So we're getting paid more under our contract, but it's in direct correlation to the numbers being served. It's not because we raised our prices or, you know, things like that.

KELLY: But that's an incredible jump. I mean, you're taking care of 10 times as many children in 2018 as you were eight years ago.


KELLY: It's just a really uncomfortable fact at the heart of this conversation and I guess at the heart of your business that facilities built to house children who are in a desperate situation - that that's a booming business in America in 2018.

SANCHEZ: Yeah, we agree with you, you know? We agree with you. And...

RODRIGUEZ: There's no one other than Southwest Key that wished that this wasn't happening. We serve these kids every single day, Mary Louise, and their stories are heartbreaking. We wish it didn't have to - we wish these kids could stay in their country and have a safe place to thrive where they could have three meals a day and not fear for their lives or their families' lives every single day.

SANCHEZ: And where they could have an education and where they would have job opportunities and where they would not have gangs threatening their lives. Yes, that is what we wish would happen.

KELLY: Thanks very much to both of you for your time.

SANCHEZ: Thank you, Mary Louise.

RODRIGUEZ: Thank you for having us.

KELLY: That's Alexia Rodriguez, vice president of immigrant children' services and legal counsel of Southwest Key, and Dr. Juan Sanchez, the company's founder and CEO. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.