Migrant children are getting educated at their Highland Park shelter

Monday dustup at Hamilton County school board came despite records showing shelter provider is teaching the children

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / The Old Tennessee Temple University dorm building in Highland Park is seen on Monday, April 12, 2021 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Up to 100 unaccompanied migrant children will be housed in Chattanooga through the Baptiste Group, according to inspection records from the state made public Tuesday.

The children, ages 12 to 17, are being housed in a former Tennessee Temple dormitory owned by Redemption to the Nations Church for around 30 days before being connected with a sponsor or other arrangements are made, according to licensing information provided by the state.

Children began coming to the facility in Highland Park in November, and education is being provided on site, ending concerns raised during the Monday afternoon Hamilton County school board meeting about the impact the new children could have on local schools.

During that Monday meeting, before details of the shelter situation became known, several school board members and district leaders said they learned about the presence of migrant children in Hamilton County from news reports. Superintendent Bryan Johnson told them he did not know, at that time, how many children there were and that it was too early to say whether the children would be enrolled in Hamilton County Schools.

The Times Free Press has since learned about the maximum of 100 from state records, and that the shelter is providing education on site.

School board member Karitsa Jones told board members they needed to handle the subject carefully since they did not have all the information, while board member Rhonda Thurman said she was concerned about taking on more students in the district. The two argued when Thurman said she would not be called a racist, resulting in Jones excusing herself from the boardroom.

With the state's inspection records referencing on-site education for the children rather than enrollment in local schools, Jones told the Times Free Press she stands by her statement Monday that the conversation was premature.

"It could eventually pertain to us, but at the end of the day, we had a conversation about something that we were not well-informed about because we did not know the plans for these children, and we did know that in the event we had children that were going to have to enroll into Hamilton County Schools, that by law we're mandated to educate them," Jones said. "So my stance doesn't change, I still feel like we needed to be culturally sensitive to the conversation and the population in which we were talking about."

Thurman told the Times Free Press she asked questions Monday night to find out more information about the situation.

"If they're not going to be in Hamilton County Schools that's not a school board problem, but you don't know these things until you ask, and that's all I was doing was asking the questions, and why people get offended when you ask questions, I don't know," Thurman said.

Under federal law, public schools are required to enroll unaccompanied youth and cannot deny them a right to education because of immigration status.

Redemption to the Nations became the target of in-person and online attention after the online publication The Tennessee Conservative first reported rumors about children coming to the city last week. People accused the Pentecostal church of putting children in inhumane conditions and expressed outrage at the perceived lack of transparency about what is happening in the building.

On Monday, Kevin Wallace, lead pastor of Redemption to the Nations, told the Times Free Press the building where children are living has been renovated and is up to all necessary safety codes, including having a sprinkler system.

During a Feb. 17 inspection, nine children were housed in the facility, according to a report at the time. The state inspector did not find any licensing violations that needed correction, according to the report. The Baptiste Group's state license to provide care services was extended through February 2022.

According to state licensing standards, care facilities must have one staff member for each eight children and provide monthly reports to the state. The Baptiste Group is advertising jobs for youth care workers, case managers and bilingual social workers in Chattanooga.

The Baptiste Group did not respond to requests for comment by phone or email from the Times Free Press this week.

For the 2021 fiscal year, the for-profit Baptiste Group was awarded $6.3 million through the Administration for Children and Families to provide residential services for unaccompanied children. In the previous fiscal year, the group received $22 million to provide such services, according to federal records.

In February 2020, the Baptiste Group changed its address of operation from Memphis to Chattanooga, according to state business records. The organization attempted to set up a shelter in a vacant Memphis school building in 2019 but withdrew its plan after the local school board raised doubts about the conditions of the building and how it would be used, according to reporting from Chalkbeat Tennessee.

The same month, July 2019, the Raleigh-based TV station WRAL, in partnership with the Center for Investigative Reporting, revealed the Baptiste Group was one of two organizations that received a federal grant to care for migrant children without a residential child care license.

Redemption to the Nations said it entered into a lease agreement for the unused dormitory with the Baptiste Group in 2019.

Before providing residential services for migrant children, the Baptiste Group sought government contracts to provide repair services and temporary shelter in disaster areas. A now-defunct website for the group from 2018 advertised services such as removing flood-damaged housing material, replacing drywall, repairing damaged stairs and providing microwaves when necessary.

In 2016, the company was involved in helping restore homes damaged by flooding in Louisiana. In 2018, the Texas General Land Office awarded the Baptiste Group a contract to deconstruct temporary housing units after Hurricane Harvey in 2017. However, the award was later withdrawn and given in full to another organization, according to records from the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts.

The Tennessee inspection record relating to the Chattanooga facility said children could have come to the city last spring but were delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic and border closures.

On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tennessee, blamed President Joe Biden's immigration policies for causing an increased number of migrants coming to the United States. Last month, nearly 19,000 children were picked up traveling alone across the U.S.-Mexico border, the largest monthly total ever recorded, according to The Associated Press.

"The Volunteer State is loving and welcoming, but no child should be put in this perilous position," Hagerty said in the statement. "The obvious way to end the crisis is to enhance border security and enforce our immigration laws, yet the Biden Administration is doubling down on ineffectual solutions. It's unconscionable that they are keeping our borders open."

Sen. Bill Hagerty's full statement

“This inhumane crisis, which the Biden Administration generated by dismantling commonsense border security and immigration enforcement measures, was completely avoidable. When I urged President Biden not to end the Migrant Protection Protocols, I warned that returning to a catch-and-release policy would bring the crisis to communities across the United States. Making every town a border town. A reality now being seen in Chattanooga. Drug trafficking is on the rise across Tennessee, and most disturbingly, the well-being of minor children is now jeopardized at the hands of smugglers forcing them to make the dangerous journey north. The Volunteer State is loving and welcoming, but no child should be put in this perilous position. The obvious way to end the crisis is to enhance border security and enforce our immigration laws, yet the Biden Administration is doubling down on ineffectual solutions. It’s unconscionable that they are keeping our borders open.”

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Ooltewah, described Biden's border policies as "weak" in a Tuesday afternoon tweet calling for greater transparency and accountability.

"The crisis at our southern border is putting a strain on communities across our nation – including Chattanooga," Fleischmann said on Twitter.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.

Contact Anika Chaturvedi at achaturvedi@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.