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CEO leaves Southwest Key, organization that detains migrant children

Posted at 4:30 PM, Mar 11, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-11 19:30:09-04

HOUSTON (AP) - The nation's largest provider of facilities for detaining migrant children on behalf of the Trump administration said Monday that its founder and CEO is stepping down after months of criticism.

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

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.

The New York Times reported in December that federal prosecutors were examining Southwest Key's finances. And the Arizona Republic published videos from mid-September in which staffers pushed and shoved children in their care. The organization closed two facilities and paid a fine in Arizona after an investigation over whether it conducted staff background checks.

Sanchez has pushed back against public criticism by saying that Southwest Key performs a necessary task in taking in children detained by the government.

"Somebody has to take care of them," he told AP in June.

Unlike the Border Patrol's facilities where migrants are usually first detained, Southwest Key's facilities typically have dormitory-style sleeping areas, classrooms, and playgrounds. Children remain at the facilities until the government can place them in foster care or with an adult sponsor, typically a relative. The Department of Health and Human Services said the average stay for children in government facilities was 60 days.

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."