As political activists push Travis County to end its relationship with Southwest Key, the federal contractor operating detention centers across the U.S. for immigrant children, the county’s juvenile board on Thursday recommended renewing county contracts with the Austin nonprofit.
The board — made up of state District Court judges, judges of all juvenile courts and County Judge Sarah Eckhardt — discussed the contracts Thursday in response to public calls to cut ties to the nonprofit.
Travis County has six active contracts with Southwest Key to handle various juvenile programs, including a supervision program for children released from detention pending court hearings, a mentoring program for children on probation and an alternative education program for children expelled from school. The contracts, which are renewed annually, are up for renewal this month.
“We are proud of the work we’ve done for Travis County and grateful they voted to continue their work,” said Southwest Key spokesman Jeff Eller in a statement to the American-Statesman.
Southwest Key has drawn national attention and criticism because of its work with immigrant families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border and as a result of allegations of abuse and mistreatment at its shelters.
In late June, protesters rallied outside the home of Southwest Key CEO Juan Sanchez, and, in late July, protesters and counterprotesters faced off outside Southwest Key’s headquarters. This week, the Hispanic civil rights group UnidosUS suspended its affiliation with the nonprofit.
Chief juvenile probation officer Estela Medina said the county has not had any major issues with Southwest Key. Medina said the juvenile department frequently reviews its contracts, holds regular meetings with staff to ensure that requirements are being met and does fiscal audits.
Board chair and 98th District Judge Rhonda Hurley emphasized that the nonprofit does not operate any residential programs for the county. Hurley said the services it provides are “critical to our operations” and losing them would “cause harm to children and their families.”
Finding a new contractor could take from six months to over a year, Hurley said. Hurley said the county’s staff is looking into putting out a request for proposals within the next year to see what other providers exist, either to replace Southwest Key or as a backup provider.
“I don’t think anybody’s happy with what’s happening at the border with our children,” Hurley said, “but at the end of the day, I don’t want to do further damage to our Travis County families and children by taking additional steps when these contracts do not involve residential services. We’ve had some of these since the mid-’90s and have had very little problems with them over the years.”
Hurley added that the county would put state grant funding at risk if it were to cut the contracts. State grant money from the Texas Juvenile Justice Department covers about $624,000 of the county’s Southwest Key programs and about an additional $835,000 comes from the county.
Frente de Liberación Inmigrante, the immigrants rights group that organized the protest outside Sanchez’s home, said in a statement that they disagreed with the board’s decision.
“We are entirely opposed to sending any public money towards Southwest Key,” the statement read. “Juvenile Justice is where Southwest Key got its start and continues to profit the organization and their overpaid CEO, Juan Sanchez.”
The services Southwest Key provides are very niche, Hurley said, and not many groups exist that could fulfill the same need. For example, a 2016 request for proposals for mentoring services only elicited two responses, one from Southwest Key and one from a Fort Worth provider.
Judge Darlene Byrne of the 126th Civil District Court said she’s had difficulty finding mentoring services beyond those offered by Southwest Key.
“I can tell you across the board in child welfare and in juvenile, we have mentoring services, but we’ve got about half the need that’s out there,” Byrne said. “I’ve had professional assessments that recommend mentors, and I can’t find them, so even the mentoring service is a blessing for the juvenile system.”
Judge Amy Clark Meachum of the 201st Civil District Court said she had asked Hurley to put the item on the agenda because she was concerned about the nonprofit, but, after hearing the presentation Thursday, she supported retaining the contracts and looking for backup contractors within the year.
“If we wanted to make a statement, we’d be cutting off our nose to spite our face,” Meachum said. “We can’t help our own kids if we do away with these programs with some sort of rash action.”
County commissioners will hear the board’s recommendation and make a decision about Southwest Key funding at their regular meeting Tuesday.
Note: This story has been updated to reflect the amount of money Travis County pays Southwest Key for juvenile programs.