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2 shuttered Arizona shelters for immigrant kids could reopen

Posted at 10:07 AM, Aug 18, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-18 20:44:27-04

PHOENIX (AP) — The nation's largest provider of shelters for immigrant children is looking to reopen two facilities that the state of Arizona forced it to shutter last year because of issues with employee background checks and allegations of abuse.

Southwest Key filed applications to reopen a downtown Phoenix facility that can house 420 children and one in the outer suburbs that can house 139.

The suburban facility, in a place called Youngtown, was shuttered last year amid reports that staff shoved and dragged unruly children. Videos released to reporters show staffers dragging children on the ground and shoving a boy against a door.

Authorities investigated the allegations but decided not to pursue charges, saying there was "no reasonable likelihood of proving" the workers committed a crime.

Arizona has seen numerous allegations of sexual abuse, including one made by the government of El Salvador, which said it received reports of three children, 12 to 17, who were sexually abused at unnamed shelters in Arizona.

A year ago, police arrested a 33-year-old man on suspicion of sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl at the same Southwest Key shelter where just weeks earlier first lady Melania Trump had taken a tour.

Last September, a former youth care worker was convicted of sexually abusing seven teenage boys at a Phoenix-area shelter for immigrant children.

A separate state health department investigation found the organization didn't have fingerprint records for some employees. Southwest Key agreed to temporarily stop taking in more children and close two facilities, among other caveats to keeping its licenses in Arizona.

Southwest Key says it's ready to reopen the closed facilities.

Spokesman Neil Nowlin said in a statement that Southwest Key has resolved the issues that led to the closing of the shelters and that there is a continuing need for beds to house immigrant children.

"We are committed to caring for these youth and safely reuniting them with a loved one or sponsor," Nowlin said. Nowlin didn't respond to questions from The Associated Press regarding what remedial actions the organization had taken and how many young people were in its care.

Immigration authorities say they're dealing with a large increase in the number of unaccompanied children who come to the U.S. via Mexico.

The Border Patrol apprehended over 69,000 unaccompanied children between October and the end of July, according to its data. That's compared to just over 50,000 in all of the 2018 fiscal year.

Southwest Key filed the new applications to reopen in June and July. An Arizona Department of Health and Human Services spokesman says the department hasn't yet completed a review, and he couldn't say how long it would take.