Former Southwest Key Programs Employee Sounds the Alarm

Antar Davidson quit his job with the nonprofit Southwest Key Programs after he was forced to tell children separated from their parents that they were not allowed to hug.

This is the same nonprofit that denied entry to Senator Jeff Merkely (D-OR) earlier this month when he attempted to enter the Casa Padre detention center in Brownsville, Texas, only to have the cops called on him.

Davidson was a youth care worker for the nonprofit and was working at a detention center in Tuscon — one of the 27 total facilities controlled by Southwest Key Programs.

The first red flag for Davidson was raised when Southwest Key Programs CEO Juan J. Sanchez instituted an “employee giving program,” in which $10 of every employee’s paycheck would go to fund supplementary care.

According to Davidson, Sanchez specifically spoke about a young boy who had come to one of the detention centers with terrible acne.

“Despite making a million dollars-plus, between him and his wife, in federal tax dollars, he said that he felt so bad that he couldn’t do anything for this child with acne, and then he proceeded to basically present this employee giving program, where employees and staff were urged to give $10 of every paycheck or a one-time contribution of $240.”  — Davidson

This program came on the heels of Sanchez’s announcement that the organization would need to take on an additional 500 employees to increase the “direct care ratios” to better accommodate “tender age kids,” or children under 10 years of age.

Davidson was processing three Brazilian children who had been separated from their mother, as well as a 5-year-old Guatemalan girl who had bonded with one of the Brazilian girls.

The children ranged in age from 5 to 16.

Davidson reportedly requested beds from management so the children, who had traveled through the night from a facility in Texas, could sleep.

His request was denied without explanation and he was forced to clear a space on the floor for the children to sleep.

Later that evening, the siblings were finally assigned rooms but were all separated, causing the children to become very upset and to cry, holding on to one another.

Davidson was then called on to tell the children that they were not allowed to hug one another.

“I approached the oldest brother, and I say to him in Portuguese, “Bro, you’ve got to be strong.” And he turns to me with tears streaming down his face, and he says, “How? How can I be strong? Look at my brother. Look at my sister. They’re trying to separate us again.” And I didn’t know—I just put my head down. I did not know what to respond to him.”  — Davidson

At this point, a supervisor came on to the scene and reiterated to Davidson that he needed to get the children to stop hugging one another.

“And meanwhile, I’m looking at these kids. It’s the two little—the two little siblings just, you know, thinking they’re going to be ripped now from their brother’s arms, and the brother crying because he can’t do anything, necessarily. And I told her, at that point, when she told me to do that—I told her, “I’m sorry, but as a human being, that’s not something that I can do. You’re welcome to do it yourself,” to which she replied, first, that she would report me to the supervisor, and then she went directly to them and said, ”no puedes abrazar,” “You’re not allowed to hug.” And he looks at me, with tears streaming down his face, in utter disbelief that that would happen.”  — Davidson

Davidson also detailed the struggles staff members faced as employees of the federally funded nonprofit, including a lack of training, low pay, no benefits, and the consistent demand that employees work extra shifts and overtime.

He also said that, based on his personal experience, Southwest Key Programs spokesperson Cindy Casares was completely unfounded in her assertion that the staff hired by the nonprofit all have backgrounds in child care or social work.

“Most of the people at that—we had one week of training. Most of the employees there were formerly working in restaurants, formerly working in—you know, construction workers. And I think one of the main things, as much as this is about the children, this is a labor issue. Southwest Key, to great profit for their board and the CEO, has mostly opened their shelters in low-income Latino communities, where workers are basically more willing to take, you know, basically, $15 an hour, which is what we take, and no benefits, and just basically not speak out, not unionize. The main point is, this is a federal responsibility, and people who undertake federal responsibilities should receive federal-level support.”  — Davidson

A point that Davidson returned to again and again was, “follow the money.”

Despite having started the nonprofit in a basement with only five other people, CEO Juan J. Sanchez now enjoys a six-figure salary.

“Yeah, follow the money. There’s going to be—I promise you, there will be millions made, in various people’s hands. And I think that’s what’s perhaps most insidious about this. This is an organization that presents itself as doing a humanitarian deed and this and that. This is a federal-level responsibility that they’re taking on, at great cost. And you need to do it right. It’s not something that you should laud yourself, especially if you’re making a lot of money. Again, follow the money. There’s a lot of money being made off of this situation.”  — Davidson

One can only hope that Davidson’s efforts to shed light on the real conditions inside the detention facilities run by Southwest Key Programs will open people’s eyes to the horrors that are being enacted against innocent children.

Iron Triangle Press will continue to follow this story.


To read Iron Triangle Press’ look into the life and work of CEO Juan J. Sanchez, click here.

To hear Antar Davidson’s complete interview with DemocracyNow! click here.

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