Supervisors at a migrant youth detention shelter in El Cajon ignored reports of child abuse and told staffers not to respond to the children’s pleas for emotional help and ignored requests to use the restroom, according to a June 4 lawsuit filed by former employees of the Southwest Key Programs shelter.
Three former migrant youth care workers at the Casa San Diego shelter allege that supervisors ignored reasonable requests for help from both the child detainees and staff, which resulted in unsafe workplace conditions, unpaid overtime and the denial of restroom breaks, according to the lawsuit.
One of those employees expanded on those alleged problems in an interview with NBC 7 Investigates about conditions inside the facility.
Former youth care worker Roberto Nava said he was not appropriately trained for the job and was not prepared to deal with the trauma experienced by the youth in his care.
Nava said those children, some as young as six-years-old, would reach out to him for emotional support and comfort as they tried to cope with memories of their trek from Central America to the U.S. Border.
“They saw some people die,” said Nava. “Some were assaulted by gang members. Some people going with them got sexually harassed.”
Others, he said, were used as drug mules by narco gangs.
Nava claimed that his supervisors told him and other entry-level staff to ignore the migrant’s pain and suffering.
“Sometimes they told us their stories and we couldn’t react to it,” said Roberto Nava. “We were basically a robot, just received the message and [would] not tell them anything. They sought a connection with us, and our supervisors told us we could not give that kind of support.”
Nava said that policy put him in a difficult position because there weren’t enough mental health experts on staff to counsel the children.
Nava said he had the untenable choice of either helping the child and losing his job or keeping his job and ignoring the child.“It felt horrible, honestly,” he said. “Horrible because you could not do anything about it.”
Nava also accused Southwest Key of putting profits over adequate, basic personal care for the detainees. He said personal care items purchased by the non-profit organization were very cheap and poorly made.
“Toothbrushes fell apart after one use,” Nava said. “Basic toiletries were bad. Very cheap products, like from a 99 cent store.” Nava also claimed that Southwest Key refused to timely replace broken or sub-standard personal care items.
Two other former employees are also part of Nava’s legal action against the shelter provider.
Former employee Maria Hernandez claims she was not allowed to use the bathroom during her shift. According to the lawsuit, Hernandez’s doctor asked supervisors to change her shift, but they refused. Hernandez, according to the lawsuit, emailed a Southwest Key supervisor in June 2018 stating, “I feel like I am being punished for reporting all the current situations at Casa San Diego.”
Hernandez claims she was terminated in September 2018. Nava and the third employee, Azael Sanchez, said they resigned from Southwest Key because the work conditions were so “intolerable.”
To see the locations of the local migrant youth shelters, look below or click here.
Attorney Brent Marlis, who represents the three former caregivers, told NBC 7 that “the workplace conditions like we’re seeing at Southwest Key are unfortunately not uncommon.”
"It's important for employees to continue to take a stand in order to effectuate change," Marlis said by email.
The allegations raised by Nava and the two other employees are not the first to be leveled against the shelter operator. In December, NBC 7 Investigates talked with five former Southwest Key employees who raised similar issues including misuse of federal funding and the shelters serving the children spoiled food.
From 2014 to 2018, state records obtained by NBC 7 show 12 employees filed complaints with the California Department of Industrial Relations (DIR).
The complaints were over unpaid wages for meal and rest breaks, as well as a lack of overtime and vacation pay, according to a DIR spokesperson.
Southwest Key ultimately settled eight out of 12 complaints, paying out $48,606 to employees who filed claims. The remaining four claims were closed due to a lack of response from the employees involved.
When asked about the settlements, Southwest Key told NBC 7 in December, “We comply with all state and federal employment laws and do not comment on litigation settlements.”
In a July 9 filing with the court, the non-profit provider denied all allegations made by the three former employees.
Neil Nowlin, a spokesperson for Southwest Key declined to comment further on the lawsuit but did reject allegations of substandard care at its shelters.
“We’ve hired a variety of outside experts who have talked with hundreds of youth who have consistently reported they feel safe and their needs were being met,” Nowlin said.
Nowlin added that the nonprofit is required to provide adequate food, clothing, and medical care in order to retain its state and federal licenses.
“Allegations from former employees don’t match what we and many others see happening in our shelters. We are proud of the service and support our teachers, youth care workers, clinicians and case managers provide these young men and women as we work to create a brighter future for them.”