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Arizona issues notices of intent to revoke licenses from Southwest Key

(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

PHOENIX — The Arizona Department of Health Services issued notices of intent to revoke the licenses of all Southwest Key Arizona shelters for migrant children on Wednesday.

The move comes after 13 Southwest Key shelters missed a Sept. 14 deadline to go through the clearance of more than 2,000 employees.

The deadline was set due to reports of children being abused by shelter staff.

“Southwest Key’s lack of ability to deliver a simple report on the critical protections these children have against dangerous felons demonstrates an utter disregard of Arizona law, the mutual agreement with the department, and calls into question the privilege you enjoy operating a health care institution in the state of Arizona,” department director Dr. Cara Christ said in correspondence with the company’s front office.

“The record is clear, Southwest Key has failed in the past with providing appropriate background checks of employees and this report indicates an astonishingly flippant attitude in your organization’s response to the department’s grave concerns.”

Jeff Eller, a Southwest Key spokesman, told KTAR News 92.3 FM in an email that the company has apologized for missing the deadline and is “serious about ensuring that never happens again.

“We remain committed to meeting all Arizona licensing requirements — both required by law and voluntary — and doing so in a timely manner,” he said.

Eller said the company has also requested to meet with DHS leadership “as soon as possible” but did not clarify whether it would appeal the revocation notices or begin settlement talks with Arizona. It has 30 days to do so.

Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, told KTAR News 92.3 FM that it is currently reviewing the claims about Southwest Key and is working with the shelters and Gov. Doug Ducey’s office to “determine the next step.”

Arizona has seen numerous allegations of sexual abuse at its many shelters for immigrant children, including one made by the government of El Salvador. The state reported three children, ages 12 to 17, were sexually abused at unnamed shelters in Arizona.

Ducey’s spokesman Daniel Ruiz said in a statement that the governor “expects every licensed facility to comply with state laws and policies, or the administration will hold them accountable.”

But a spokesman for an Arizona non-profit organization is pointing fingers at someone else for the mess-up: State lawmakers.

Currently, licencees like Southwest Key can hire a third-party contractor to do an inspection on its facilities, turn in paperwork to the state health department and get a license.

“That removes a level of accountability that I think you need, especially when kids are involved,” Will Humble, a spokesman with Arizona Public Health Association, said.

Instead, Humble said lawmakers should introduce a bill that would allow the state health department to conduct routine, unannounced inspections on facilities like Southwest Key’s.

KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Griselda Zetino and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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