AUSTIN (KXAN) — Southwest Key Programs has been the focal point of criticism for housing separated immigrant children in Texas and CEO Dr. Juan Sanchez says the leadership team has reconsidered its options.
However, there are concerns no one else would step in.
“We do not know what will happen to these kids if we get out of the way, and we also know there are very few if any that understand the culture — understand the language and are able to provide the service to these kids like that,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez says the nonprofit hasn’t received directions on what’s next for the immigrant children in its shelters, though President Donald Trump signed his executive order reversing the family separation policy Wednesday.
“From where we sit, we’re ready to begin reuniting them with their families and my hope is we can start doing that very, very quickly,” he said.
“I would like to start that today if we could. We have not gotten the guidance yet or the direction of how this is going to happen, but my hope is that we’re going to get that very quickly and as soon as we do, we’re ready to take the kids to their parents.”
Sanchez says Southwest Key’s facilities have been keeping track of where parents are located.
“But what we do is we try to communicate with the parents for the child so that they know where the child is,” he said, “so they know that they’re here and they know their child is being taken care of.”
Sanchez continued, “When it gets to older children we still do it by phone – we try to connect the parent with the child by phone when we’re able to talk to them – so that there’s some communication there and they know at some point, they can come back together again.”
He says older children get two phone calls a week for about 10 to 15 minutes each time.
Maureen Scott Frano, federal public defender in the Western District of Texas, confirmed that if the parent and child could not be housed together during the pendency of the criminal case, “the U.S. attorney was looking at dismissing those cases.”
“Obviously if there were facilities available to house the defendant and their child together, the case would proceed,” she explained in an email. “My understanding is that currently in the Western District of Texas, there are very limited facilities to accommodate the joint detention of parents and children.”
The Texas Observer first reported at least 15 immigrant shelters in the state are operating at overcapacity. The organization says it is currently housing 5,169 kids and about 10 percent of them are children separated from their families. Sanchez says an average stay is currently about 52 days.
“This is the largest number of kids we’ve ever had. We’re able to handle about 5,500 kids, so we still have a capacity of about 300 kids,” he said. “We’re working a couple of other facilities that will give us a capacity of up to 6,000 kids, so we’re not overburdened.”
On Thursday, Aragorn Eissler stood outside Southwest Key’s office in Austin, protesting the nonprofit for operating the shelters.
“If they didn’t facilitate this administration’s choice to separate children from families, then hopefully nobody would,” he said.
State records show over a 3-year period, Southwest Key had more than 200 violations at its facilities. At its shelter in Casa Padre, one of the residents in care tested positive for a STD, but a medical coordinator failed to follow up with treatment and it took two weeks before the resident received care.
But Sanchez says the issues were corrected once recorded.
“Just a human possibility that some of these standards are not going to be met,” he said. “We report every single one of those standards ourselves. We have a place for children. Every hallway you have, there’s a phone where kids can pick up the phone whenever they feel anything inappropriate happened to them.”
Since 2015, the organization has received $995 million in federal funds. Sanchez says 85 percent of that goes to direct childcare – food, clothing, shelter and medical needs. The other 15 percent “is to take care of all the salaries that are required to take care of these kids.”
Southwest Key is in the process of hiring more clinicians to assist with mental health services for the children, Sanchez said. There is supposed to be one clinician for every 10 kids.
“There is a greater need for those kids, the younger kids, the separated kids, to see a clinician and to receive mental health services,” he said.
As the organization continues evaluating what needs to happen moving forward, Sanchez says he sees the need to continue operating the shelters.
“I sleep very well at night,” he said. “We have not committed any offenses. We’re not doing anything that’s illegal. We’re taking care of children.”