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Paul Penzone says MCSO made mistakes in migrant child abuse case

(KTAR Photo/Peter Samore)

PHOENIX — Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone promised changes after admitting his office made mistakes while investigating alleged abuse against migrant children at a Valley shelter.

Penzone held a press conference Monday to discuss three reported cases of abuse that allegedly occurred in September at the Southwest Key facility in Youngtown, Hacienda Del Sol, which has since been shuttered.

Penzone said the cases initially were recorded as closed when they should not have been.

“Herein lies the challenge where I believe our employees created a problem that should have been handled better,” he said.

Southwest Key Youngtown, AZ Update

Posted by Maricopa County Sheriff's Office on Monday, January 7, 2019

About a week later, a detective sergeant doing a standard review determined that the report was lacking and a more thorough investigation was warranted.

As a result, some reporters who made inquiries were told the case was closed even though the investigation was ongoing, Penzone said.

Investigators examined video from the shelter and interviewed witnesses, alleged victims and suspects in October and November, and summaries of the interviews were submitted for review.

One of the videos, which were published by the Arizona Republic on Dec. 28, showed a male staffer dragging and pulling a boy into a room before slapping him and pushing him against a wall.

Another video showed a female staffer dragging a child who was lying down and blocking a doorway. A third video showed a “disrupted classroom setting.”

The videos, which were obtained through public records requests, were blurred by the Arizona Department of Health Services to protect the privacy of the children.

Penzone said the videos and documents related to the case shouldn’t have been released yet because the case was open.

“That gives me cause for concern, but it’s a concern on our side of the roster here,” he said. “We need to do a better job as an organization.”

On Dec. 5, MCSO officials went over the case and determined there wasn’t enough evidence to pursue charges with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.

Penzone said this was another misstep and the team making the decision should have communicated better with the MCSO executive staff to see if more resources should have been allocated.

“And additionally, we should always call on the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office whenever there’s a question whether or not we’ve reached the threshold, particularly when it involves crimes against children,” he said.

Penzone said he would hire two experienced auditors to oversee all calls of possible crimes against children to make sure they have been thoroughly investigated.

“They will be folded into the process to track to make sure that we have obligated every potential resource to thoroughly investigate these crimes from beginning to end, and they will work in partnership with the county attorney’s office,” he said.

On Dec. 30, the case was sent to the MCAO, which has yet to determine if charges will be filed.

Penzone gave credit to the media for giving the story the exposure it deserved.

“I am not saying that we know for a fact that crimes have been committed; that will be reviewed and determined,” he said.

“But we had a responsibility to ensure that we got another set of eyes on this investigation so that we could be thorough in every aspect.”

Penzone said the alleged victims were Hispanic, but that didn’t impact the way the case was handled.

“There’s nothing right now that indicates that those involved early on made any of their judgments based off that element,” he said.

The Arizona Department of Health Services removed all juveniles from Hacienda Del Sol on Sept. 28.

All of the Southwest Key facilities that housed migrant children in Arizona stopped accepting minors in October after the parent company settled with the state over a missed deadline regarding employee background checks.

As part of the settlement, the Hacienda Del Sol and Casa Phoenix shelters surrendered their licenses and closed their doors.

The shelter in Youngtown had held immigrant children who came to the U.S. without a parent or in some cases were separated from family.

Before the investigations, Southwest Key, a nonprofit organization, had about 1,600 children in 13 facilities in Arizona. That number was cut in about half by the end of 2018.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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