Former Employees Allege San Diego County Migrant Youth Shelters Put “Profits Over Care”

Southwest Key Programs has received millions of dollars in federal funding to house migrant youth but former employees say while the funding has increased over the last few years, resources at the San Diego County shelters were sub-par.

In 2018, the number of children crossing the border alone was five times higher than in 2017. This left the federal government to feed and look after thousands of children, under the age of 17. 

To accomplish the task at hand, the Office of Refugee Resettlement has contracted with nonprofits across the country, including Southwest Key Programs, which operates three shelters in El Cajon, Lemon Grove, and just outside of Alpine. 

But five former employees for Southwest Key tell NBC 7 Investigates that recently, it appears those contracts are not centered around care, they center around profits. 

Southwest Key Programs has sheltered more than 20,000 migrant youth across the country, including more than 2,600 boys and girls here in San Diego County. 

To see the locations of the local shelters, click here or look above. 

Since former Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy was going into effect, NBC 7 has spoken with five former employees of the local shelters, all who worked at the shelters within the last three years. 

The employees said they did not see the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding the nonprofit receives being put to good use. 

“At first, it was a very rewarding job. You would go home and feel good about what you did,” said a former Case Manager for Southwest Key. “After that, it was in a way demoralizing because you would just see these kids and they really needed the help and they weren't really getting it.” 

This former Case Manager for Southwest Key Programs agreed to speak with NBC 7 in an on-camera interview, on the condition we not show his face or use his name. He provided NBC 7 with records, proving his employment at the nonprofit before he was terminated. 

In addition to the former Case Manager, two former Case Workers, an Administrative Assistant, and a Cook for the shelters said the children in these facilities were not a priority. The Case Manager feels Southwest Key “profited off the backs of these children.” 

“It wasn't about helping the clients anymore, it was about getting as many clients as we could in,” said the former Case Manager. “Just like an industry producing a product in mass quantities.” 

According to tax filings NBC 7 reviewed, Southwest Key is funded through the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Over the last three years, federal funding to the nonprofit has more than doubled. Last year, Southwest Key received $626-million dollars from the ORR for all of its 26 shelters across the country. 

But the five former employees said despite the increase in funding, they did not see an increase in resources at the local level. 

“The bosses would have multiple phones, big monitors, luxury offices,” a former caseworker said. “How come that money isn’t used to help the kids?” 

All five former employees who spoke with NBC 7 said the shelters would accept food and clothing donations for the children, despite the federal funding for these items. 

“They would sometimes give the clients food that was about to spoil,” a former Case Manager said. 

No representative from Southwest Key would go on-camera for this story but a spokesperson disputed the claim about spoiled food. 

“The children in our care receive three meals a day and two snacks,” said Southwest Key spokesperson Jeff Eller. “And those meals are culturally appropriate.” 

“If [the menu] said shrimp and pasta, they would say no, that’s too expensive,” a former Cook for Southwest Key’s shelters said. “Just give them pasta.” 

The former Cook also confirmed that the shelters would accept donated food items, such as “old pizza” from stores close to the shelters. Workers said the shelters accepted donations from nearby Vons, Dominoes, Pizza Hut and Einstein Bagel stores.

NBC 7 contacted all of the stores mentioned by the former employees but the businesses did not respond to our questions.

“It wasn't the best food, very cheap,” said a former caseworker, adding that kids would often receive “fish sticks with a lack of taste”. 

Four of the employees who oversaw education and recreational activities said these activities were reduced in the last four years, due to a lack of staff. 

“[The Office of Refugee Resettlement] sets our standards for the amount of time for education and recreation. We meet those standards,” Jeff Eller said. “If we didn’t, they would not allow us to continue child care.” 

Four of the employees, whose job duties included minor reunification said they felt pressured to reunify children with family members or guardians in the U.S. as quickly as possible, in order to free up bed space in the local shelters. 

“The program would get paid for every minor that stepped foot into the programs,” the former Case Manager said. 

Southwest Key said their goal is to reunify children as quickly as possible, so that, "these children can be in a home environment." Eller added that funding has no impact on reunifications. 

“These are contract facilities and something that had been relatively rare has now become, you know, a $1.3-billion dollar industry,” estimated University of San Diego Human Rights Professor Everard Meade, Ph.D. 

Meade said he and other immigration attorneys and child welfare advocates have started to question the nonprofit's motives. Across the country, Meade said Southwest Key has in recent years been scrutinized by state officials for its handling of migrant minors housed in their shelters, specifically in Arizona and Texas

“If you want to fault the contractors for anything it's that they're saying ‘yes’ [to the Office of Refugee Resettlement] in some cases where they should probably say ‘hold on’,” Meade said, referring to nonprofits like Southwest Key. 

Meade added that the current administration's “zero-tolerance” immigration policy has created thousands of children who, under federal law, the government now must look after. And that has created a financial opportunity behind these contracts. 

“At the end of the day, if they're not able to come up with a safe bed space for these kids and provide for these kids, it's a collective failure,” Meade said. 

While Southwest Key’s funding has increased for the shelters, the salaries for the nonprofit’s executives have also increased. 

Southwest Key’s tax filings show salaries for Executive positions within the nonprofit more than doubled over the last three years. 

In 2016, Southwest Key's President and CEO Juan Sanchez received a $1.4-million dollar salary. His wife and Southwest Key’s Vice President, Jennifer Sanchez, made at least $487,554.

Southwest Key says the annual salaries of their CEO and board members are "in line with what executives earn across comparable nonprofits." 

All five former employees who spoke to NBC 7 said they felt “worked to the bone” and in some cases, NBC 7 Investigates found Southwest Key employees filed complaints with the California Department of Industrial Relations. 

“The issues in these wage claims were primarily meal periods and rest periods, as well as some cases claiming overtime and vacation,” said Paola Laverde, Public Information Officer for the Department of Industrial Relations. 

While not admitting wrongdoing, Southwest Key ultimately settled eight out of 12 complaints filed from 2014 to 2018, paying out $48,606 to employees who filed claims. The remaining four claims have been closed after “plaintiffs either did not appear or did not respond,” said Laverde. 

When asked about the settlements, Southwest Key told NBC 7, “We comply with all state and federal employment laws and do not comment on litigation settlements.”

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. A spokesperson for Southwest Key said all cases were reported properly and the safety of children is their number one priority. 

To read that part of the story, click here.

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