Travis County commissioners vote to renew Southwest Key contract


Southwest Key will provide prevention and intervention services for at-risk children in Travis County for another year after commissioners Tuesday unanimously renewed the controversial, Austin-based nonprofit’s contract.

Activists have been calling on the county to cut ties with the nonprofit, which has gained national attention for its work with immigrant families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border and as a result of reports of allegations of abuse and mistreatment at its shelters. No activists spoke at Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting, where more than two dozen Southwest Key employees and clients were present, and half a dozen spoke.

Travis County has six active contracts totaling about $1.5 million 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 are renewed annually.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said that while the court is concerned about the family separation program and Southwest Key CEO Juan Sanchez’s widely criticized, large compensation package of $1.5 million, they are not concerned about county programs based on what they’ve heard from judges and the juvenile probation and purchasing departments.

“We often talk about this: that it’s not enough to look good, you have to actually do good, too,” Eckhardt said. “This may be a circumstance where extending these contracts doesn’t look good, but it actually does good.”

The item Tuesday covered just one contract for the county’s prevention and intervention services program. Purchasing agent Bonnie Floyd said the others will come up later this year.

The court’s vote upheld a recommendation approved Thursday by the county’s juvenile board, which is made up of state District Court judges, judges of all juvenile courts and the county judge.

In a letter Monday, board chair and 98th District Judge Rhonda Hurley implored the Commissioners Court to renew all Southwest Key contracts and emphasized that none is for residential services. Some of the programs have been in place since the 1990s, Hurley said, and have had “very few, if any, performance concerns.”

“Failure to renew and fund these programs would be a huge disservice to the children and families of Travis County involved in the juvenile justice system,” Hurley wrote. “Although no concerns currently exist about these contracts, Juvenile Probation will continue to use due diligence to determine whether other service providers exist.”

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.



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