Penzone takes blame for failing to refer shelter abuse; vows changes
Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone discusses the incidents at a Southwest Key facility where children were pushed, shoved and dragged by employees. Arizona Republic
Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone took responsibility Monday for his office initially deciding no criminal review was needed of incidents in which children at a migrant shelter were pushed, shoved and dragged by Southwest Key employees.
Penzone and his senior staff reversed that decision after viewing late last month videos of the incidents published by The Arizona Republic.
The case, involving three children at a shelter in Youngtown, is now under review by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office. A decision on whether criminal charges are warranted could be issued within a month.
"It all falls on me," Penzone said at a Monday news conference on the case, which has again focused national attention on the treatment of migrant children in federally contracted shelters.
He said the biggest failure was poor communication, saying decisions on a case such as this should have come to his office.
The initial investigation of the Sept. 14 incidents did not include witness interviews or a review of surveillance video from the shelter, Penzone said.
But the case got further scrutiny after an internal review, which led to interviews with up to seven witnesses, as well as forensic interviews with the three children at the center of the complaint and the review of more than 200 hours of surveillance video.
Even with that information, the team in charge concluded the complaint did not meet the legal standard for a criminal review and closed the case Dec. 5, according to a timeline created by Penzone's office.
"The one thing that should have not occurred is, it should have not stopped there," Penzone said. "It should have come to my office."
Videos obtained by The Arizona Republic show staffers dragging and pushing migrant children. Arizona Republic
But after news reports showing blurry video of protesting children being pushed and dragged by Southwest Key employees, Penzone's office reopened the case.
"It was absolutely the exposure that brought (this) to the attention of this administration," Penzone said.
Penzone said he first saw the videos, which were released to The Republic by the state Department of Health Services under a public records request, in news reports.
No decision on crimes
Although his office has revived the case, Penzone emphasized no decisions have been made about whether a crime or crimes were committed. That decision will fall to County Attorney Bill Montgomery's office.
The Sheriff's Office denied The Republic's request for the investigative file in the case saying it is now part of a continuing investigation by the County Attorney's Office.
Southwest Key fired the staffers involved in the incidents and the children were transferred to other shelters. It is unclear where they are now.
Since the incidents, Southwest Key closed the Youngtown shelter under an agreement with state health authorities.
Another set of eyes
Moments before Melania Trump’s arrival at a Phoenix Southwest Key facility protesters chant “Melania Trump you cant hide, we can see your racist side.” The Republic | azcentral.com
Penzone said he will add two staff positions to handle complaints involving possible criminal actions against children and determine when such complaints need a review by top sheriff's executives. These positions will be filled by people with experience in child criminal cases and will act as an "audit" of sorts on investigators' work, he said.
Penzone did not have a precise time frame for when those hires would be made, noting his office is understaffed by 15 percent, partly because of the demands of federal compliance orders that were issued because of the actions of former sheriff Joe Arpaio.
He also said he couldn't commit to reviewing past investigations involving children, saying it would depend on manpower and the nature of those investigations.
But he did reiterate his commitment to protecting children his priority, saying, "No child will be left behind, period."
Penzone also released a timeline that showed that although the alleged child maltreatment happened Sept. 14, it wasn't reported to the Sheriff's Office until the next day as a possible assault. There were subsequent reports of "incorrigible juveniles" that were received later in September, but all stemming from the Sept. 14 incidents.
Reach the reporter at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @maryjpitzl
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