Southwest Key Staff Describe Unusual Tactics

Southwest Key Lighthouse facility, Phoenix, AZ

Recently, after being taken on a guided tour of the Southwest Key facility in Tucson, City Councilman Steve Kozachik, and members of his entourage described it as a “homey” place. The Arizona Department of Health Services recently conducted a cursory inspection of the facility as well and gave it a clean bill of health.

Former employees of Southwest Key see something entirely different. They see a prison-like facility operated by an organization that views children as commodities and the employees as rent-a-cops, whose most important mission is keep their mouths shut while the organization does all it can to keep costs down and kids coming.

To that end, staff must ignore the complaints of kids who are hungry, who are given nothing more than a quarter-sized dollop of soap with which to bath, or given someone else’s underwear to use because – after all – these kids should just be grateful that El Presidente was kind enough to give them some place to land.

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Employees are to remain quiet when they believe young children are being handed-off to anyone but loved ones. They are to remain quiet as suspected criminals are processed and released into the community under the guise of being minors in need of shelter. All the while, the minors are told that they would not be so fortunate without the kindness of the El Presidente and employees are reminded that if they don’t like what they see – they can be – and will be – replaced.

Who is El Presidente?

As we reported last year, Southwest Key, an Austin, Texas based company, is led by El Presidente Dr. Juan Sánchez. Southwest Key was started by Sánchez, who was “shaped by his experiences as a young migrant worker,” according to the website. Sanchez, listed on the website as “El Presidente/CEO,” graduated from Harvard University with a doctorate from the School of Education.

Sanchez claims he learned collective responsibility “growing up in one of the poorest barrios of a South Texas border town,” according to an article in the Austin Business Journal. He describes himself as a “community activist with a raised fist.”

In 2014, Southwest Key was awarded over $7 million for the Tucson facility.

The grant reads:

Funding is requested from the Services to Unaccompanied Alien Children Program, to provide shelter care services as outlined in this proposal up to 280 unaccompanied alien children referred by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, Administration for Children and Families, DHHS. Shelter care services will be provided at a short year budget from June, 29, 2014 through September 30, 2014, at an estimated cost of $7,479,210. View document here.

The $7 million covers everything from travel for executives to “multicultural crayons.”

According to the Arizona Department of Education, Southwest key has been contracting with the Department‘s Health and Nutrition Services Division, for the last 10 years.

The Tucson grant reads:

Food cost is calculated at $8.65 per day per client. We provide three meals per day and two snacks; our food service program meets the USDA guidelines for nutritional content and serving size. This program will be contracted with the Arizona Department of Education to participate in the National School Lunch Program which will provide a reimbursement of $5.51 per day per client to cover food expenses. Southwest Key also uses a number of resources for donated food, which are used to supplement this amount and to produce additional cost savings. This item also includes the travel costs in the amount of $600 for the NSLP accountant to provide a mandatory training and monitoring of the administrative requirements for submitting claims for the National School Lunch Program specifically related to SWK Casa Tucson.

The grant included $ 1,500 for pool cleaning for three months.

Big business

One whistleblower reported last week that the minors in the care of Southwest Key are allowed to call home once a week. During those calls to Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, the minor children often encourage siblings and other family members to arrive at the U.S. Mexico border and specifically request placement in a Southwest Key facility. Federal policy dictates that minors are not turned away and are quickly processed to a limited extent and then delivered to the shelters across the southwest.

No one knows how many children have died after being lured into travelling north.

However, the “number of children who are caught trying to slip across the U.S.-Mexico border alone and illegally has quietly surged again more than a year after President Obama referred to the problem as an “urgent humanitarian situation,” according to a December 12, 2015 article by Elizabeth Chuck for NBC News.

“More than 10,000 undocumented children have been stopped in just the last two months, according to U.S. Border and Customs Protection,” reports Chuck.

Southwest Key sources report that the shelters are at capacity ensuring that El Presidente’s coffers will remain full.

While Southwest Key has found the pipeline to attract minors, employees are another matter. Without exception, all of the many whistleblowers with whom we met describe their initial excitement with the prospect of helping children who had fled from oppressive poverty, and the feelings of betrayal that led them to flee the oppressive Southwest Key.

One whistleblower explained how they came to understand the organization’s bottom line. “They brain wash us,” said the former employee with a Master’s Degree in Social Work. They believe that Southwest Key management engages in a systematic beating down of an employee’s self-esteem so that eventually they become more manageable and resistant to questionable practices. From forcing professional staff to clean toilets, to altering their case notes, staff confidence is slowly eroded. That lack of confidence leads to fear, and fear leads to silence.

“Maintenance people were involved in the same training,” they said. The whistleblower described learning how the program came about, and learned about the mission. “Like wow, they really dotted their I’s and crossed their T’s,” they said. “Whole different story once it started. Whole different story. The training started and no one got the training that they needed. … it was devastating. I hope I don’t have PTSD because I saw so much that I couldn’t take it anymore.” They added that other staff stories of mistreatment were “mind boggling.”

At one point, according to three whistleblowers, the entire medical staff at the Southwest Key facility in Tucson left. Because of the secretive and distrusting nature created by management, most employees did not know the medical team had left for weeks afterwards. With medical staff gone, a lice infestation grew and quarantine was put in place.

Those employees who do not break down and continue to question what they see become targets. Pointing to one whistleblower, another said, “They had her wash windows, do meals.” She asked, “Why did they force you to wash windows?” The targeted whistleblower responded, “I took care of the kids and I spoke up.”

One whistleblower recounts how they had reported a minor, who claimed allegiance to the Mexican Mafia and bragged that he was going to be delivered to a drug family in Phoenix, they were reprimanded. When they reported to management that the alleged minor was bullying other UACs and taking their meager meals, it was the employee who was reprimanded.

The feeling many employees had was that there was money in each and every client and they had to be processed as quickly as possible with few questions asked. Numbers of kids are kept high and costs are kept down. “You have children that are malnourished. There are some kids that need medical attention. They need eye glasses. Some are high risk. Some kids are disabled. They are sweeping it up – all under the rug. And the turnover ratio in the medical department alone is ridiculous – because they don’t have gloves,” stated one whistleblower.

The bottom line

In a memo dated July 21, 2014, Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry outlined the economic benefits of placing a shelter in communities.

He wrote the memo in response to the concerns of residents who questioned the wisdom of placing large numbers of very needy children in a poor and unprepared community like Tucson, located in Pima County. Rather than sharing their concerns that resources were limited, Huckelberry saw the kids are resources.

He wrote: “I have found several local governments viewing the shelters as beneficial to local economic development. In Youngstown, AZ., a shelter established last year was viewed as revitalizing a blighted street and the mayor has written letters of recommendation on behalf of Southwest Key to other communities considering allowing the shelters to open.”

According to that same memo, it appears from this memo that the Arizona Department of Economic Security received $10,500,000 in ORR funds in 2013-2014. This might explain why Governor Jan Brewer only feigned anger at their arrival while putting staff to work securing facilities.

Employees are like busses

Southwest Key employees are like busses, there is always one coming along to pick up the load. As long as the shelters are placed in communities like Tucson, which is the fifth poorest metropolitan area in the country, the unemployed pool will be deep for Southwest Key. That pool can supply ready workers who are desperate enough to feed their own families that they can look the other way while Southwest Key neglect the stomachs of its clients.

That is not to say that many current employees do not love the children and value the mission of the shelter. However, by all accounts the employees, who stay on, do so only for those children and their own; not El Presidente and his burgeoning empire.


When the minors arrive at Southwest Key, as part of their orientation, they are shown a presentation that includes a tribute to El Presidente. Images of El Presidente feeding masses of children flash before their eyes as they are told that without his kindness they would not be here. In light of the recent influx of children, one has to wonder how many of the new arrivals are here thanks to those phone calls home full of El Presidente’s praise and promise.

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