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Arizona Gets More Oversight Of Southwest Key Programs As Former Shelter Worker's Sex Crimes Trial Nears

Ann and Don Nicoll have lived in their home on Second Avenue in Mesa for almost a decade.

The house is kitty-corner to a large, tiered compound, fronted by a patch of grass, on a two-lane neighborhood street.

The compound used to be apartments for seniors. Now it’s a Southwest Key Programs shelter, where federal prosecutors say Levian Pacheco sexually abused eight boys. Pacheco has pleaded not guilty. 

“We often wonder what the heck is going on in that building,” Ann said.

Mesa police records show officers went to Southwest Key, a government-contracted shelter for migrant children, almost 150 times in about 26 months. The calls ranged from reports of loud music to child molestation.

“I have seen police cars there,” Don said. “[I] see more fire trucks, emergency crew[s] there, then police cars.”

Pacheco is at least the third Southwest Key employee accused of sex crimes in Arizona since 2015. Around the time Pacheco’s case made national news, officials inspected all 13 Southwest Key facilities in Arizona. This led to an agreement that Southwest Key will let state officials do more oversight.

Part of the deal is, for the next 12 months, Southwest Key will tell the state agency that licenses the facilities, when it calls police, the Department of Child Safety or the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement about any event or allegation that creates a serious risk to a kid’s safety.

This part of the agreement closes a major loophole, said Democratic state Rep. Kelli Butler.

“But there is still enormous concern about what [the Arizona Department of Health Services] is able to do with the information,” Butler said.

The Health Services department did not do an interview for this story. A spokesman for Southwest Key said the Texas-based nonprofit fully supports expanded oversight, and looks forward to working with Arizona.

The federal government has primary authority over Southwest Key, and there are rules on who gets told about criminal accusations against a worker.

Butler wants Arizona to do more to protect children.

“This [agreement for more oversight] does not go nearly far enough to ensure the safety of these kids,” she said.

Documents obtained by the Fronteras Desk through Arizona public records law show since 2015, the Department of Health Services received at least 13 complaints about Southwest Key facilities like the one where Pacheco worked.

In one case from 2017, a report alleges that a woman who worked at one of the Southwest Key facilities in Phoenix was in a relationship with a minor, and had been in constant contact with the child since their release. State child welfare services, and federal officials were told. But the Arizona Department of Health Services closed the complaint, and others, because it did not have jurisdiction.

“I think that we need to give the department more authority to take action when it’s needed,” Butler said.

The Department of Health Services plans to fine Southwest Key for problems with employee background checks discovered during the recent inspections.

The agency has cited Southwest Key seven other times in recent years, but they added up to less than $3,000 in penalties

“Those fines are not high enough to both incentivize them to do a better job, and to pay for the oversight that is needed,” Butler said.

The nonprofit Devereux Arizona has child behavioral health licenses through the Department of Health Services, which are the same kind of licenses held by Southwest Key. The Department of Child Safety has significant oversight on Devereux’s campus, said Executive Director Lane Barker.

“If there is a problem, they show up,” Barker said. “And they should.”

Devereux relies on the child welfare agency to help screen new hires. It’s a step beyond the background check and fingerprint clearance required by Southwest Key.

“Anything that’s been reported through the [Department of Child Safety] system, whether it resulted in an investigation, and some sort of charges, or not, that information will come back to us,” said Barker.

When Southwest Key learned of the allegations against Pacheco, records show it reported them to the state child welfare agency.

The Department of Child Safety cross-reports abuse and neglect concerns to the departments that license Southwest Key, said an agency spokesman.

On Second Avenue in Mesa, Ann and Don Nicoll spend the afternoon sifting through old photos.

“We’re working on my mother’s genealogy,” Ann said.

The couple can sometimes hear kids at Southwest Key playing outside. Ann learned of the Pacheco case a while back. She said the shelter closed for a little while, and then started up again.

“And so we are assuming that everything is OK,” Ann said.

Matthew Casey has won Edward R. Murrow awards for hard news and sports reporting since he joined KJZZ as a senior field correspondent in 2015.