Three former employees of San Diego County migrant youth shelters told NBC 7 Investigates their management did not properly report cases of sexual abuse and misconduct involving minors to law enforcement.
The employees point to this example, and other instances of poor care, as evidence of how they feel the overall mission of the organization they worked for, Southwest Key Programs, changed over the last four years from focusing on the care of migrant youth to a focus on profits.
Since the Trump Administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy went into effect, NBC 7 has been speaking with former employees of the nonprofit Southwest Key, which runs three shelters in El Cajon, Lemon Grove, and just outside of Alpine.
To see the locations of the local shelters, click here or look below.
The minors held in these facilities are ages six to 17 and were either caught trying to cross the border alone or their parents were arrested by immigration officials.
“Early on, when I began, [the children] were very well treated,” a former Case Manager for Southwest Key said. “I think the program sort of shifted down in 2014 when they started just seeing clients as a way of making, I want to say, a profit.”
This former Southwest Key Case Manager agreed to speak on the condition we not show his face or use his name. He provided records, proving his employment at the nonprofit before he was terminated.
NBC 7 Investigates also spoke with a former caseworker and former Administrative Assistant for the shelters, both who worked at the shelters for the last three years and said when cases of sexual misconduct were reported, Southwest Key’s local upper management wouldn’t treat them seriously.
“Management would say ‘we're going to take care of [these allegations]’ but they never would,” said Marisol Perez, a former Administrative Assistant for Southwest Key.
To verify the cases described by these employees, NBC 7 filed a public record request for all law enforcement calls to each of the three shelter locations since January 2010. Those requests were filed with the El Cajon Police Department and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department.
“From one of the instances that I clearly remember, I know the staff member was fired because of things that she did with one of the minors,” the former Case Manager said.
This case, described by the former Case Manager, was in April 2016, when staff at Southwest Key first learned about a 22-year-old female employee kissing one of the minors housed at the El Cajon shelter, according to a report prepared by the El Cajon Police Department and the accounts of all three former employees.
According to the police report, when Southwest Key was first informed about the inappropriate relationship by another child housed at the facility, staff members confronted the juvenile victim. Police notes indicate employees found a piece of paper in the juvenile male’s pocket that had the 22-year-old employee’s Snapchat account handle written on it.
In their report, El Cajon Police Officers said they were notified of the incident 12 days after Southwest Key confronted the employee involved, which led to the employee quitting. On the day the incident was reported to police, staff told police the juvenile victim was on his way to being reunited with family on the east coast.
No representative from Southwest Key Programs would go on-camera for this story. In response to written questions by email, spokesman Jeff Eller disputed what was said in the El Cajon Police report, saying staff had notified El Cajon Police of the incident the same day they learned of the allegations.
Eller said Southwest Key could not comment on specifics about this case or others, but that the nonprofit’s number one priority is to keep the children in their care safe.
“Children have access to phones at all times, in every one of our facilities,” Eller said. “These phones are pre-programmed to call 911, Child Protective Services and the Office of Refugee Resettlement so that they can report an immediate situation in which they feel uncomfortable or in danger.”
To read Southwest Key’s full statement regarding allegations of sexual misconduct or abuse in their facilities, click here.
According to El Cajon Police and the San Diego County District Attorney’s office, no arrest took place nor were charges filed against the employee in 2016.
“Whenever possible, we will make arrests and/or forward those cases to the District Attorney’s office for prosecution,” Lt. Royal Bates with the El Cajon Police Department said.
When asked for more details, Bates said State law prohibited the department from doing so since the cases involved minors.
In addition to the 2016 case, NBC 7 found eight police and sheriff reports where investigators were called to investigate allegations of sexual battery or indecent exposure, taking place from January 2016 to as recently as this past April. Six of the cases involved only minors that were housed at the El Cajon shelter and resulted in no arrests or charges being filed. The other two cases involved Sheriff’s Deputies being called to the Lemon Grove shelter to investigate “sex crimes against a child” but no further details were released.
Despite these reports to police and deputies, the three employees who spoke to NBC 7 said they witnessed cases where allegations of misconduct were not reported at all.
“They actually would just kind of ignore those [cases] where the clients were talking, just because they would say, ‘Oh well, they're kids. They lie,’” said the former Case Manager.
Eller with Southwest Key said, “Southwest Key Programs does extensive work to prevent all forms of abuse. When these rare situations occur, all staff involved adhere to our strict protocols.”
On April 11, 2018, after El Cajon officers were called by a Southwest Key employee from the El Cajon shelter to report an indecent exposure had taken place between two minors, the male victim in the case told Police he “did not want to be the victim of a crime.” The case was closed with no arrest or charges filed.
NBC 7 Investigates also received records showing the number of minors who have run away from the three local shelters. To see that story, watch below or click here.
Boys and girls housed by Southwest Key currently live in separate shelters, each located in El Cajon and Lemon Grove. But last year, two former employees said boys and girls were housed under one roof, in El Cajon.
The former Case Manager and Administrative Assistant who spoke with NBC 7 said the separation of boys and girls happened as a result of allegations raised of inappropriate contact between the boys and girls housed at the facility.
In response to that claim made by the employees, a spokesperson for Southwest Key said, “We routinely have gender-specific and mixed gender shelters depending on the number and ages of children under our care.”
“The most common pattern of abuse is teenage unaccompanied minors abusing other teenage unaccompanied minors,” said Everard Meade, a Human Rights Professor at the University of San Diego who has worked closely and studied immigrant youth facilities, including shelters owned by Southwest Key.
“I’m not letting the facilities off the hook, or the staff there. It’s their job to prevent that,” Meade said.
Meade had supported Southwest Key for years. In 2014, Meade worked with Southwest Key when the nonprofit pitched a new immigrant youth facility in Escondido. The plan was not approved by the City Council.
But recently, Meade said he and other immigration attorneys and child welfare advocates have started questioning Southwest Key’s motives.
“These are contract facilities and something that had been relatively rare has now become a billion-dollar industry,” Meade said.
The federal funds paid to Southwest Key come from the Office of Refugee Resettlement. According to the nonprofit’s most recent tax filings, the program as a whole accepted more than $626-million dollars in funding.
But five former employees who agreed to speak with NBC 7 said those funds were not spent properly, in some cases leading to kids receiving “spoiled” food donations for meals. Southwest Key disputes this claim.
To read that part of the story, click here.