HOUSTON - The nonprofit trying to open a migrant children’s shelter in Houston has a history of health and safety violations at other shelters it operates, according to a KHOU 11 Investigates review of inspections by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
Southwest Key Programs, Inc., is licensed to house more than 3,200 children at its 16 residential child care facilities across the state. Eleven of those shelters are in the Houston area with a total capacity of around 800 children.
In a June 15 interview with TEGNA sister station KVUE-TV in Austin, the nonprofit’s President and CEO said he was proud of the care his organization provides.
“We do it very well, we do it better than everybody else,” said Dr. Juan Sanchez.
Southwest Key Programs receives more money than anyone else in Texas when it comes to caring for migrant children who cross the border. Its current funding tops $500 million according to federal procurement records reviewed by KHOU 11 Investigates.
That amount of money concerns advocates at the Tahirih Justice Center in Houston, which provides legal services to immigrant women and children fleeing violence.
“There’s a lot of desire to cut costs and my concern is cutting costs when children are this traumatized,” said Executive Director Anne Chandler.
A review of three years of inspection reports of the nonprofit’s Texas shelters reveals 245 violations, including 78 in the “high” risk level category. Those include a child “clearly in pain” who was not given medical care promptly. Another child with a wrist fracture was not seen by a doctor until three days later according to state inspection reports. Another child feeling ill was not given any medical treatment.
Other violations include giving the wrong medication to the wrong child, and other medication errors according to state records.
“The shelters are scrambling,” Chandler said.
She said under the new “zero tolerance policy” at the border, shelters are having a tough time hiring enough staff to keep up.
“The system is overloaded,” she said.
Dr. Sanchez did not dispute that in the recent interview with KVUE-TV.
“What happened is so many kids came in so quickly and we had to expand so fast,” Dr. Sanchez said.
“Right now, we have asked many of our staff to work 12-hour days to be able to manage all these kids,” Dr. Sanchez said in the June 15 interview.
Shelters must manage everything from bathroom cleanliness to serious health concerns.
One of the Southwest Key Programs shelters was cited for having dirty sinks and bathrooms with no towels for children to dry their hands. Another was in violation for not telling the state when a child contracted a communicable disease.
In a statement, the Southwest Key Programs said its overall deficiency rate is less than one percent of more than 78,000 standards evaluated by state inspectors. The nonprofit also said it self-reports problems to regulators, launches internal investigations, and has disciplined staff when problems are found. New employees are required to undergo 80 hours of training before they can work with children, according to the non-profit.
It also said the United Nations Human Rights Council recognized its good work with migrant children in 2016.
You can read the full statement from Southwest Key Programs here.