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Troubling video sparks more questions about treatment of migrant children in shelters

Troubling videos from inside an Arizona migrant children’s shelter appear to show employees of a government contractor treating children roughly. The footage, which was taken in September, was obtained through an open records request by Mary Jo Pitzl of the Arizona Republic, who joins Amna Nawaz to discuss the disturbing content and why it's "a bit of a mystery" what occurs at these facilities.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Troubling videos from inside a migrant children's shelter in Arizona have come to light which appear to show employees of a U.S. government contractor roughly treating migrant children in their care.

    In one clip, a male staffer is seen pushing, shoving and then appearing to slap one child. Another adult is seen forcing a different child through the room, carrying and eventually dragging the child through a door, followed by yet another staffer pushing and dragging a third child through the same door.

    The incidents occurred in September at a facility in Youngtown, Arizona, operated by Southwest Key Programs, a nonprofit that runs 24 such shelters nationwide, housing migrant children, most of whom arrived alone at the U.S./Mexico border.

    The video was obtained through an open records request made by The Arizona Republic's reporter Mary Jo Pitzl, who joins me now.

    Mary Jo, welcome, and thank you for being here.

    The video, we should point out, has been blurred, obviously, because you want to protect the identities of the children. What else do we know about the details of the children or the staffers in this video?

  • Mary Jo Pitzl:

    Well, what we know is these incidents happened in mid-September at a facility in a suburb of Phoenix called Youngtown, Arizona.

    It's one of, at the time, 13 shelters operated by Southwest Key in Arizona. After those incidents happened, Southwest Key reported those to the federal government, as is required by their contract, and without elaboration, the office — the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement suspended operations at that facility.

    At the time, we didn't know why. And then, a couple of weeks later, on a separate matter, but involving this facility, among others, the state health department threatened to revoke the licenses of all the Southwest Key shelters because of problems with double-checking background — doing background checks in a timely manner.

    The settlement from that resulted in this facility, as well as one other, being shut down. So where we're at today is, the facility where this happened is not operating anymore. We don't know where the children are. We do know that the employees involved were terminated.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Can you tell us a little bit about the videos and how he got them? The cameras in this situation, are they standard in shelters like this? It's hard to believe anyone would treat a child like that knowing they are being recorded.

  • Mary Jo Pitzl:

    They are standard. It's part of the oversight of children that are in the federal government's care.

    And, yes, I think that's why these videos are particularly disturbing. It is important to keep in mind, I mean, these are kids who are really traumatized. I mean, they have been removed from their parents. They're in a strange place. They don't know it. They don't — they may not even speak the language.

    So, of course they are going to act out, and there have to be techniques and training for staffers to know how to deal with these kind of disruptive behaviors. But this one seemed to suggest that perhaps they went a little beyond the pale.

    We don't have a clear grasp at this point of what kind of actions are acceptable. We do know that the local sheriff's office initially looked at this and decided that there was nothing here that really rose to a criminal standard, saying that these are — basically suggesting that these were somewhat accepted practices.

    They reversed that position — or their higher-ups did — after we — after we published these videos over the weekend.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, we know — we should point out the county prosecutor there is looking into, reviewing these videos to see if there is something that rises to the level of criminality.

    But, criminal behavior aside, I think it's difficult for anyone to see children in the care of the U.S. government being treated this way. And this one company, Southwest Key Programs, I want to ask you about them, because they are the nation's largest operators of shelters for migrant children. They have some 5,000 migrant children across all these shelters.

    And the kids who were removed from these shuttered shelters were sent to other shelters.

    I just want to point out, we went to them for a statement. And they basically said, look, we welcome the suspension of operations here. They also said, "We are simultaneously engaging the child welfare department partnership to do an independent top-to-bottom review of our processes, procedures, hiring and training in our Arizona shelters."

    Is there any way, Mary Jo, that they can guarantee that this isn't happening in any one of their other shelters?

  • Mary Jo Pitzl:

    That's a good question.

    I guess we may have to wait for that consultant's report to come back out. We do have — meaning my organization — we do have some records requests into state officials who hold their — the license for the other Southwest Key facilities that are operating, and we will see what that might yield.

    There was a second shelter that was closed at the same time as the one in Youngtown, Arizona, and we don't know why. We are trying to find out, especially in light of these revelations.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You know, we should also mention it's not the first time you and your colleagues have reported on disturbing behavior and even some criminal convictions coming out of specifically Southwest Key programs.

    Tell me a little bit about what you have found in the past and what you will continue to look into in the new year.

  • Mary Jo Pitzl:


    Due to some work that's been done by my colleague Agnel Philip, he found that, predating this summer of 2018 surge of children separated at the border, a couple of years previous, the Youngtown facility had two allegations of child sexual abuse. It was sort of child-on-child incidents that were investigated.

    And then, since then, we have learned that there have been two Southwest Key employees who worked at other shelters who have been arrested. One has been convicted on, I think it's eight different counts involving child maltreatment. He is set to be sentenced later this month.

    Another man was arrested, and I'm not clear what has happened to his case. But there have been problems, not just at the — at this one facility that is now closed, but at others that are still operating.

    But those incidents predated sort of this wave of children that came in, in the summer of '18.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Before I let you go, very quickly, Mary Jo, can you just tell me, because you have been reporting on — in this space for a while, these videos, this kind of insight is rare.

    How difficult is it for us to understand what's happening inside these government-contracted shelters housing migrant children?

  • Mary Jo Pitzl:

    Oh, I think it's very difficult.

    I mean, the only time that we, meaning our staff, has been able to even get a look inside one is when first lady Melania Trump came this past summer. And that was only as part of a well-prepared visit. And we had a press pool that was able to go in.

    The governor of our state and his wife toured one of the facilities and would say nothing about what they saw, neither positive, negative nor neutral. It is very difficult to get in. They are not open to the public.

    These are shelters. There are privacy concerns, of course. So we have to rely on police reports, on any kind of oversight that comes from the federal government, anything that we can get out of public records, oversight from the feds, or from the state health department.

    But it's a bit of a mystery what's going on in there.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Mary Jo Pitzl of The Arizona Republic, thank you for being here.

  • Mary Jo Pitzl:

    Thank you very much.

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