An employee at a shelter for immigrant children in Phoenix has been arrested on suspicion of sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl housed at the facility, according to court records in Maricopa County, Ariz.
Fernando Magaz Negrete, a 32-year-old employee of federal contractor Southwest Key Programs, is accused of slipping into the girl’s room late at night and forcibly kissing and inappropriately touching her, according to court documents. He was arrested and charged Tuesday with molestation of a child, sexual abuse and aggravated assault.
A spokesman for Southwest Key Programs, which operates dozens of shelters across the country for migrant children, said the employee has been fired.
“When a child tells us of inappropriate behavior, we immediately call law enforcement and start an internal investigation as appropriate,” the spokesman, Jeff Eller, said in a statement to The Washington Post. “That’s what happened in this case. Southwest Key always works with law enforcement to bring the full force of the law to bear when it is warranted.”
The statement did not address questions about whether the girl was an immigrant previously separated from her parents at the border. The Arizona Republic reported that the facility where she was held — which is not specified in court documents — is intended to house separated children. Police documents in Magaz Negrete’s case describe it as a “juvenile facility for refugee children.”
Melania Trump visited the facility in June, Phoenix’s ABC15 reported.
According to a probable cause statement, a teenage girl sharing the room with the 14-year-old girl witnessed the alleged June 27 incident and sparked the investigation when she reported it to authorities July 25. In interviews with investigators, the 14-year-old girl said Magaz Negrete entered her room and began kissing her on the lips. She then “pushed him away,” got away from him and “went to her bed angry,” police said in the probable cause statement.
The two teenage witnesses sharing the bedroom with her told authorities they observed Magaz Negrete touching the 14-year-old’s breasts and crotch over her clothes.
Surveillance footage captured Magaz Negrete approaching the girls’ bedroom several times between 9 and 10:30 on the night of June 27, according to the probable cause statement. The girls’ doorway and bedroom, however, were out of the camera’s view.
Police said Magaz Negrete admitted to kissing the girl and touching her vagina over her clothing when police questioned him at his residence.
Since the Trump administration ended its policy of family separation at the border in response to bipartisan outcry, the government has scrambled to reunite the families, including more than 2,500 children, under court-ordered deadlines. While the federal government said last week that it had reunited most of the separated families, more than 700 children remained in shelters for various reasons, including because their parents have criminal records or are no longer in the United States, as The Post reported then. Thousands of other children are in shelters after arriving as unaccompanied minors.
Conditions of those shelters have invited scrutiny as reports of the children’s experiences have trickled out from immigration attorneys and families. For example, one boy The Post spoke with who spent time at a Chicago shelter said he “felt like a prisoner” and spent three weeks in isolation after getting chickenpox, while a girl said she had come down with conjunctivitis and had been placed in a room by herself at a shelter in Harlingen, Tex. Last week, a federal judge ordered a facility in Manvel, Tex., to stop giving children psychotropic drugs without their parents’ consent.
Complaints of sexual abuse at immigrant shelters for children, which are overseen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement and operated by contractors, are not uncommon. A recent ProPublica investigation found police responded to at least 125 calls reporting sex offenses in the past five years at shelters primarily housing immigrant children. The investigation had analyzed incidents at more than 70 out of approximately 100 such shelters nationwide.
“If you’re a predator, it’s a gold mine,” Lisa Fortuna, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Boston Medical Center, told ProPublica. “You have full access, and then you have kids that have already had this history of being victimized.”
Magaz Negrete is being held in the Maricopa County Jail on $150,000 bond. He made his first appearance in court Wednesday, where a judge pledged to appoint an attorney for him. Magaz Negrete asked in Spanish whether he could hire his own. No attorney could be located for him in court records as of Wednesday night.