CEO and founder of troubled Southwest Key shelters steps down

Mar 11, 2019, 5:48 PM | Updated: 6:00 pm

PHOENIX – The CEO and founder of the company that operates controversial shelters for immigrant children in Arizona and other border states is stepping down.

Southwest Key Programs said Monday in a statement that Juan Sanchez will retire.

After an investigation stemming from abuse allegations, the state ordered all Southwest Key shelters in Arizona to stop accepting minors in October 2018, and two facilities were shut down.

Last month, one Phoenix facility, Lighthouse, was given permission to start accepting a limited number of children.

Southwest Key is the nation’s largest provider of detention facilities for migrant children on behalf of the Trump administration.

The Austin, Texas-based nonprofit collects hundreds of millions of dollars through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to run facilities along the southern border.

It came under fire as the Trump administration detained more immigrants and conducted large-scale separations of families last year, pushing children into the organization’s facilities without their parents’ consent. At least one facility in South Texas served as a “tender-age” shelter for toddlers with cribs and other supplies.

According to government data obtained exclusively last year by The Associated Press, the number of children held by Southwest Key grew to around 5,000 at a time last year, including around 1,400 at an old Walmart in Brownsville, Texas. Southwest Key received $523 million in government funding from January to September.

Critics have accused Sanchez of facilitating the detention of thousands of children and questioned the salaries Southwest Key paid him and his family. Sanchez earned $1.5 million, according to the organization’s 2017 tax filings.

Southwest Key thanked Sanchez and said “it’s time to begin a new chapter.” Chief Operating Officer Joella Brooks will serve as interim CEO.

Sanchez said in the statement that the organization “would benefit from a fresh perspective and new leadership.”

“Widespread misunderstanding of our business and unfair criticism of our people has become a distraction our employees do not deserve,” Sanchez said. “It’s time for new beginnings.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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CEO and founder of troubled Southwest Key shelters steps down