04:06 - Source: CNN
Charity CEO running migrant kids' shelters earns $1.5 million
CNN  — 

The founder of Southwest Key Programs, one of the nation’s largest providers of shelters for migrant children, is stepping down as CEO, the nonprofit said Monday.

In a letter to staff, Juan Sánchez said “recent events” convinced him and Southwest Key’s board of directors that the nonprofit “would benefit from a fresh perspective and new leadership.”

Southwest Key came under heightened scrutiny in 2018 when the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance border policy led to the separation of migrant children from their parents.

Many of those children ended up in Southwest Key’s shelters for unaccompanied minors, drawing attention to past violations in the facilities as well as new scandals and allegations of wrongdoing.

“Widespread misunderstanding of our business and unfair criticism of our people have become a distraction our employees do not deserve, and I can no longer bear. It’s time for new beginnings,” Sánchez said in his letter.

Chief Operating Officer Joella Brooks will take over as interim CEO while the board conducts a nationwide search for a permanent CEO, board Chairman Orlando Martinez said.

“Our mission has never been more critical than it is today, and we must look carefully at what is required to evolve and grow as an organization,” Martinez said in a statement.

“The board is immensely grateful for Dr. Sánchez’s drive and determination to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of children.”

According to its website, Sánchez founded Southwest Key Programs in 1987 in a basement in San Antonio with a staff of five people. In addition to programming for youth justice initiatives, it also has provided housing to migrant children in US custody as part of a federal shelter system for more than 20 years.

Sánchez said the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy flooded Southwest Key’s shelters. It also increased media scrutiny of its facilities for migrant children.

CNN reported in 2018 that the organization received about $1.5 billion over the prior 10 years for operating 83 programs across the country that include shelters for migrant children and youth justice initiatives. Tax filings show that Sanchez received nearly $1.5 million in total compensation in 2016 as CEO, nearly double the salary he received the year before.

Although a nonprofit organization’s board has the right to determine its president’s salary, charity watchdogs told CNN the salary was one of the highest in the United States for a charity CEO. A Southwest Key spokesperson told CNN the salary was within a reasonable range compared to salaries for other nonprofit CEOs.

In September, the Arizona Department of Health Services threatened to revoke the licenses of 13 shelters in the state, citing the company’s failure to show proof of fingerprinting and background checks for employees. Southwest Key closed one shelter, the Hacienda Del Sol facility, in October after negotiations with the state.

Later, surveillance videos showed staffers pushing and dragging migrant children at Hacienda Del Sol before it was closed. A spokesman told CNN at the time that the company reported the events to the Department of Health and Human Services, the Office of Refugee Resettlement and local police as soon as they occurred.

Also in September, a former youth care worker was convicted of abusing teenage boys at Southwest Key’s Casa Kokopelli facility in Mesa, Arizona, between August 2016 and July 2017.

The New York Times reported in December that the Justice Department is investigating Southwest Key for possible misuse of millions of dollars in federal money. A Southwest Key spokesman told CNN at the time it had not been contacted by federal investigators.

Southwest Key and the US Attorney’s Office on Monday declined to confirm or deny if an investigation is underway.

CNN’s Devon Sayers and Drew Griffin contributed to this story.