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Police: Worker at child immigration facility molested teen

PHOENIX (AP) — A worker at a nonprofit organization that houses immigrant children separated from their parents at the border has been booked on suspicion of molesting a 14-year-old girl at its one of its facilities in Phoenix, police said Wednesday. Southwest Key, which operates the facility, declined to say whether the 14-year-old girl was an immigrant who was separated from her parents at the border.

Fernando Magaz Negrete kissed and fondled the girl in her bedroom at the facility on June 27 in an encounter witnessed by the girl’s 16-year-old roommate, police said. They said surveillance video shows Magaz Negrete, 32, approaching the bedroom several times throughout the night, though the bedroom itself was outside the camera’s view.

“When a child tells us of inappropriate behavior, we immediately call law enforcement and start an internal investigation as appropriate,” Southwest Key spokesman Jeff Eller said. “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 nonprofit said it has fired Magaz Negrete.

The facility where the alleged abuse occurred was visited on June 28 by first lady Melania Trump, who met with people directly affected by her husband’s hard-line immigration policies.

Shelters that house immigrant children have come under scrutiny since the Trump administration introduced a “zero tolerance” policy toward illegal entries that has led to the separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The news website ProPublica published a report in late July saying police responded to at least 125 calls reporting sex offenses at shelters that primarily serve immigrant children since 2014. The ProPublica report detailed a 2015 incident at a Tucson, Arizona, shelter operated by Southwest Key in which authorities said an employee touched a 15-year-old Honduran boy’s penis from outside his clothing. The worker was fired and later convicted of molestation.

Magaz Negrete was booked Tuesday on suspicion of child molestation, sexual abuse and aggravated assault. Efforts to find an attorney for Magaz Negrete through court records and from a court official were unsuccessful.

Magaz Negrete made a brief court appearance Tuesday night, asking the court commissioner who presided over the bond hearing, “Who is bringing up these charges?”

Court Commissioner Tracy Nadzieja responded that Magaz Negrete’s court-appointed attorney will explain the allegations against him at some point in the future.

Magaz Negrete, whose bond was set at $150,000, remained in jail on Wednesday.