By ASTRID GALVAN, Associated Press
PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona authorities said Monday they sent prosecutors the results of an investigation into a now-shuttered shelter for immigrant children where videos showed staffers dragging and shoving kids.
The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office investigated incidents that took place on three days in September. Prosecutors will now decide whether to file charges.
The videos first obtained by The Arizona Republic are blurry but show staffers dragging children on the ground and shoving a boy against a door. In one video, a staffer is seen sitting at a conference room table, fidgeting with her hair, while another staffer drags a child into the room. The treatment continued even after the child falls to the ground.
The shelter, known as Hacienda del Sol, was operated by Southwest Key and located in the metro Phoenix area before it was closed in October. It held immigrant children who came to the U.S. without a parent or in some cases were separated from family.
Southwest Key has been under fire in Arizona after a series of investigations into abuse of children in its care.
The Texas-based organization is the largest provider of shelters for immigrant children in the country and agreed this year to give up licenses at two of its biggest Arizona facilities at a time when the U.S. government is holding more children in its care and for longer periods of time.
Before the investigations, Southwest Key had about 1,600 kids in 13 facilities in Arizona. That number was cut in about half by the end of the year.
Southwest Key was forced to shutter Hacienda del Sol in an agreement with the state health department after an investigation found the organization hadn’t properly done background checks on all of its employees. It also was required to take other steps to ensure the safety of children in its care.
Southwest Key spokesman Jeff Eller said Monday that staff members who monitored video at Hacienda del Sol immediately notified police and the government agencies about the incidents seen on the videos.
He said the organization cooperated with the investigation and quickly suspended, and later fired, the two employees in the video.
“We wholeheartedly welcomed the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s decision to suspend operations at Hacienda del Sol and are working to thoroughly retrain our staff,” Eller said.
Southwest Key has also arranged an independent review of procedures, hiring and training at its Arizona shelters, he said.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which is in charge of caring for immigrant children, said its focus is on the safety and best interest of each child.
“These are vulnerable children in difficult circumstances,” the agency said in a statement. “When any allegations of abuse or neglect are made they are taken seriously, investigated and swift action is taken.”
Immigration facilities in Arizona have been targeted by numerous allegations of sexual abuse, including one 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 August, 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.
In September, a former youth care worker was convicted of sexually abusing seven teenage boys at a Phoenix-area shelter for immigrant children..