Arizona State Representative Bob Thorpe is calling for an investigation into the Southwest Key facilities under contract by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and licensed by the State of Arizona. Thorpe’s request follows last week’s revelations by U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX).
On November 25, Grassley issued a statement revealing that federal authorities responsible for vetting potential guardians of children who enter the country without an adult have been placed some with convicted criminals, according to whistleblower claims. According to Grassley, the whistleblower, who is familiar with the vetting process, alleges that at least 3,400 sponsors out of a sample of 29,000 listed in a government database have criminal histories that include domestic violence, homicide, child molestation, sexual assault and human trafficking.
As Grassley notes: The Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement is responsible for coordinating the screening of potential sponsors for exploitation, abuse, or other safety concerns. However, the background checks are allegedly often inadequate, leaving children in the custody of potentially dangerous individuals. Earlier this year federal agents arrested human smugglers who reportedly posed as sponsors to force at least six Guatemalan boys to work 12 hours a day on an Ohio egg farm.
The whistleblower brought the claims to the Judiciary Committee’s attention, according to Grassley, after raising concerns with supervisors that reportedly yielded no immediate corrective actions. That is also the case with whistleblowers associated with Southwest Key shelters in Arizona.
While local Arizona law enforcement agencies have received reports of sexual abuse and run-aways, the shelters operate in secrecy. That secrecy is a result of federal government policies that demand silence from service providers and potential whistleblowers, who live in fear of retaliation of the provider’s personnel.
Southwest Key has created controversy since it first entered the public’s collective consciousness in 2013 during the surge of Unaccompanied Minor Children (UAC) from Guatemala and Honduras crossing the southern border of the United States. At that time, Southwest Key was awarded contracts to set-up additional shelters. While local officials in Arizona hurriedly issued new licenses or modified existing ones for Southwest Key and other providers to expand their care capacity, many residents questioned why the communities were receiving the minors at all.
There were temporary dust-ups involving opposition to settlement during the well-publicized surge. Eventually, the controversy died down and most people turned their attention to other flash-point issues while caretakers quietly did the best they could for the unending stream of arrivals.
Behind the scenes and before the Grassley report, Rep. Thorpe, known for his gentle demeanor and dedication to children, quietly had begun looking into disturbing reports from constituents about ORR’s placement process and the treatment of the UACs in the shelters while awaiting placement.
Those reports included claims by whistleblowers that the minors were living in unhealthy environments until being handed over to questionable sponsors. Whistleblowers reported lice-infested facilities and minors being turned over to coyotes, the term used to describe human smugglers in the Southwest.
One informant claimed that minors had recently run away from the facilities because they believed they would be turned over to cartels operating in the U.S. who would then force the minors into a life of hard labor.
One whistleblower told the ADI, “I think three of my cases – I know for a fact – were coyotes. They were traffickers. And they were being handed off,” referring to her Southwest Key clients.
Another whistleblower explained that when they had concerns about a sponsor, Southwest Key higher-ups would dismiss them.
“We would take it to our lead and they would tell us ‘don’t worry about it ladies,’” the informer explained. “Just do what you need to do. Oh by the way, you got six cases coming up so don’t waste your time on this. In some cases we were overloaded. In an eight-hour shift, we were expected to interview the families, investigate the families, have all the paper work, documents, birth certificates, everything within a 24-hour period. Do our reports manually and actually go into the different sites and punch in all the information manually and still give a report to our leads and then check the kids and actually go get them and listen to them. It was a ridiculous task what we had to do in an eight-hour day. I would clock out and I would stay there until 7, 8 or 9 p.m. and finish the case ‘cause I didn’t want to get called out and didn’t want to be embarrassed in front of my peers because I didn’t successfully deliver the kids.”
The whistleblower described what they said was a typical encounter with Southwest Key managers.
“I started off my case: look this is a child who is male and 16. He has a potential sponsor in the uncle. He is single and he works 10 hours a day. Wait,” the informer said, “I’m concerned that he won’t be able to attend this child because supposedly according to the rules, the child can’t go to a sponsor and be on his own. He can’t stay by himself. ‘Oh, that’s not your problem continue,’ they were told. “But wait I wasn’t trained that way.”
The Southwest Key manager would be impatient and dismissive.
“She would call me out and say continue your work,” stated the informer. The supervisor would then question as to what the concerns were. When advised that the informer had doubts that the “uncle” really was employed, and that he had domestic violence charges and was arrested on a DUI, the supervisor stated that she believed the charges were too old to worry about. The informer said “that kind of thing” (conversation) was common.
The informant’s recitation seems to be backed up by Grassely and Cornyn’s whistleblowers. The Southwest Key whistleblowers’ concerns about trafficking seem to be backed-up as well.
The informers say that the minors are treated like they should be grateful to be in the U.S. no matter what their living conditions might be, and their future might hold. Informers describe many of the minors as developmentally unprepared to deal with the complexities of their situation. “Cognitively they are not ready,’ said one informer with an extensive clinical background. They claim that many of the UACs have “not developed to understand” the “problems and the issues. They don’t even know how to deal with it. They live minute to minute. Day to day. They don’t know what they are going into.”
Those limitations are exploited according to informers. One described children being herded into a large meeting room at the Southwest Key shelter in Tucson. The founder of Southwest Key, Dr. Juan Sanchez, who insists on being called “El Presidente” appeared on a large screen. The minors were told to wish “El Presidente” a happy birthday. They were told that without the benevolence of “El Presidente” they would not be in the U.S. The minors dutifully complied.
Informers say it is especially troubling that the minors are expected to be grateful to a man that has made so much money off of “caring” for kids who have so little. From enriching profiteers who provide inadequate food, clothing and medical care to desperate children, to funding government program that turns children into political chattel, the informers question if America’s taxpayers would support what is happening if they knew about it.
The informers are not the only people with questions. In their letter to Johnson, Grassley and Cronyn ask: What policies or procedures are in place to properly investigate and vet sponsors before releasing UACs into their care? What background checks does ORR conduct on sponsors? What personnel are tasked with conducting the background checks?
“The senators ask hard questions of Secretary Johnson and the people of Arizona deserve answers to those questions as they pertain to the children we are housing,” said Thorpe.” Arizonans are humane people who believe in the dignity of life. This last year, we saw border crossing double from the time of the surge. We are doing nothing to prevent these children from their dangerous trek, and once here, due to the federal government’s secrecy, there is little we can do to protect them. But we must.”
With one case of alleged molestation of a minor at the Southwest Key in Tucson still under investigation, and at least one complaint filed with the Arizona Department of Health Services against the same site, it is inconceivable that the State of Arizona can allow the alleged abuse and neglect of kids to continue unaddressed.
But it does not have to be this way. We have in the past had successful programs to accept unaccompanied immigrant children who were at risk in their country of origin.
The largest of those programs was the Peter Pan program that took place between 1961 and 1962, and enabled around 14,000 children from Cuba to settle comfortably and safely in the United States.
This program was successful, according to those who experienced it firsthand. They argue that the program was successful because it was developed and overseen by faith based organizations that actually had the welfare of the children as their number one priority. They say the program was well managed and controlled. The end result is that the vast majority of the children involved in the Peter Pan Program went on to become successful and productive members of the American society.
They say that if the current administration really has as its goal the welfare of these unaccompanied immigrant children, they should emulate the Peter Pan Program instead of fostering the absolute chaos that is currently going on.
Others question why the federal government is not opening up schools and hospitals in the UACs home countries. They argue that the money spent on shoddy shelters like those provided by Southwest Key could do considerable good in Guatemala and Honduras.
Instead, informers recount the visit of the First Lady of Honduras with disgust. They say she flew in, offered platitudes and left behind the children her own country neglected, only to have them neglected here.
In their letter to Johnson, Grassley and Cronyn asked about ORR’s policies. The letter reads in part:
Although the whistleblower claims to have relayed these concerns to supervisors in August of 2015, apparently these individuals have no immediate plans to remove UACs from their criminal sponsors, but are “discussing options.” ORR regulations prohibit UACs from being released to a sponsor if there is substantial evidence that the child would be at risk of harm. Yet, due to a breakdown with screening and background checks of sponsors, many of the most vulnerable are being victimized.
For more thorough understanding of this situation, please answer the following questions and provide the following requested information by December 7, 2015.
1. Of the sponsors currently listed in the UAC portal (database), how many have criminal records?
2. What policies or procedures are in place to properly investigate and vet sponsors before releasing UACs into their care? What background checks does ORR conduct on sponsors? What personnel are tasked with conducting the background checks? Please explain.
3. Are background checks conducted and fingerprints taken on all potential UAC sponsors? Please explain.
4. If a sponsor is found to have a criminal record, is that sponsor automatically disqualified from accepting UACs? Please explain.
a. Which types of criminal convictions automatically disqualify a person from becoming a sponsor?
5. If a sponsor’s criminal record is discovered after the sponsor has already accepted UACs, what processes or procedures do the agencies have to ensure the UACs are not left in the criminal sponsor’s care? Please explain.
6. How many home studies has ORR conducted for all UACs before and after placing them with a sponsor? Has ORR conducted home studies on any UACs within the 3,400 placed with criminal sponsors presenting a risk of abuse, maltreatment, exploitation or trafficking to the child? If not, why not? Please explain.
7. How many UAC sponsors have been convicted of child molestation? How many UAC sponsors have been convicted of homicide? How many UAC sponsors have been convicted of crimes of violence including sexual assault and domestic violence?
8. Do background checks of UAC sponsors include running the sponsor’s name through the National Crime Information Center? If not, why not? Please provide a list of all databases and background checks that are queried for all UAC sponsors.
9. Please provide any information on the “alert” issued by ORR in 2013 warning of three “fraudulent sponsors” with addresses in Colorado, Iowa, and Minnesota seeking to claim unrelated unaccompanied minors.
a. What information is included in an ORR alert?
b. Has ORR issued similar alerts in 2014 and/or 2015? Please explain.