BENTON COUNTY, Ark. (KNWA/FOX24) — Several former employees of the Northwest Arkansas Children’s Shelter say leadership waited too long to act in dealing with another former staff member, Hunter De La Garza.

Rogers police arrested De La Garza on February 26th. He’s accused of raping a 10-year-old girl in the shelter’s care.

According to its website, the NWA Children’s Shelter residents are placed there by the Department of Human Services Division of Children & Family Services in response to a report or allegation of child abuse or neglect or an intervention by law enforcement. It says 80% of children coming to the shelter faced neglect, 15% faced physical abuse and 5% faced sexual abuse.

“I think one of the saddest things is that none of us were surprised,” said Former Employee 1. KNWA/FOX24 communicated with three former employees who want to remain anonymous.

Some of these former shelter employees were not shocked to learn of De La Garza’s arrest. Court documents say the rape happened in a bathroom at the Promenade Mall in Rogers in February 2021.

“I knew the little girl really well,” said Former Employee 1. “A lot of my friends knew the girl really well, um, and saw a change in behavior from her, you know, when it occurred.”

Two of the former employees said they saw De La Garza grooming certain young female residents.

“There was a six-year-old girl and she was overly attached to him,” said Former Employee 1. “He carried her everywhere. He went into the bathroom with her and she was fully independent.”

“I would tell him several times you can’t go into the bathroom with the kids and close the door because he worked preschool with me,” said Former Employee 2. “And I would have to walk by it open the door because he would close it.”

The former employees said they reported De La Garza’s behavior to leadership multiple times but nothing seemed to be done.

“A lot of people did speak out but a lot more people wanted to that felt they couldn’t risk losing their job,” said Former Employee 1.

“There was a lot of fear involved with reporting certain concerns,” said Former Employee 3 via statement.

By law, shelter employees are mandatory reporters. The former employees said the order of operations for reporting internally was to submit a report to their supervisor, who then decided if they need to report it to the Department of Human Services.

“There were some supervisors who would say I’ll take care of it, or I’ll call it since they have the incident report,” said Former Employee 2. “They would just go ahead and call it in but there was a lot of stuff that was never actually done.”

So the former employees decided to report him to DHS themselves.

“I know talking to coworkers that multiple co-workers hotlined him both anonymously and from the shelter,” said Former Employee 1. To “hotline” something is what the employees called reporting to DHS.

Former Employee 2 said they reported him to DHS when a resident came and told them De La Garza touched her thigh.

“Two black residents directly reported to me that they felt “unsafe” at the shelter due to a racial comment Hunter made to one of them about their skin complexion,” said Former Employee 3. “Over time, as Hunter continued to work on their wing, the residents continued to express to other staff and me that they felt “unsafe”. This is what led to my hotline call.”

We asked the shelter when it first became aware of any allegations against De La Garza. It re-sent us the same statement from last week which states:

“For 30 years, the NWA Children’s Shelter has worked tirelessly to provide a safe haven for children in crisis. We’re disturbed by these allegations and continue to focus on the safety of the children in our care. When we first learned of this incident more than a year ago, we immediately contacted authorities and ended Mr. De La Garza’s employment.  We remain committed to assisting authorities and refer all further questions to them.

The shelter said it’s their intent to identify and hire those best suited to provide loving and effective care for children living at the shelter. “This includes thorough vetting processes and state/federal background checks for anyone the shelter hires,” it said in a statement sent on Tuesday.

The former employees want the shelter to be investigated, held accountable, and for local donors to pull their funding.

“I love those kids. And that population is so vulnerable, the most vulnerable in our community,” they said. “I think that we have an obligation to protect them because they, their voices have been silenced.”

Police arrested De La Garza about a year after the shelter turned over information about the rape to police.

Benton County Prosecutor Nathan Smith said it’s hard to prove child sexual abuse cases. He said the clock starts ticking as soon as an arrest is made, so they wanted to have their proof ready before putting him behind bars. While he admitted it took longer than he would have liked he “wants it right, rather than right now,” he told KNWA/FOX24 over the phone.

We also reached out to DHS to see if the shelter is being investigated or if they received any previous reports about De La Garza. DHS spokesperson Gavin Lesnick said, “We cannot confirm or deny any investigation as child maltreatment records are confidential by law. DHS does license that facility, and it is in compliance at this time.”

The shelter said on Tuesday it has conducted a nationwide search for its new executive director, held diversity training, and paid increased wages while adjusting scheduling in order to retain staff.

De La Garza’s next court appearance is currently scheduled for April 27th.