Tennessee judge keeps Chattanooga migrant shelter closed but questions delays with other proceedings

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.

A Tennessee judge on Monday again denied the Baptiste Group in its effort to allow a Chattanooga shelter that housed unaccompanied migrant children to reopen until a decision is reached in the state's case to revoke the organization's child care license.

Chancellor Patricia Head Moskal of the Davidson County Chancery Court said Monday the court was denying the group's motion for a stay because the organization could not show it was entitled to continue operating.

Moskal also said the statute would require a "good and sufficient" bond amount be set in the event that continued operation results in the injury of others.

"I don't know that there could be a good and sufficient bond amount when you're talking about the safety and welfare of children as it is present in this case," Moskal said. "And so the court finds that any bond amount would not be sufficient, requiring the court to deny the stay."

The shelter operated under a federal contract as La Casa De Sidney on the old Tennessee Temple University campus in Highland Park. The contract was approved, and the shelter began operations, under former President Donald Trump. Its child care license was approved last year by the administration of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee - and the state renewed and expanded the license in February.

The facility became controversial in May with the airing of a WRCB-TV Channel 3 video of migrant children arriving in Chattanooga at night, causing several Republican elected officials to criticize the administration of President Joe Biden.

On July 1, the Tennessee Department of Children's Services suspended the Georgia-based Baptiste Group's residential child care license due to allegations of child abuse at the facility and a report of a child running away from the shelter.

An administrative law judge upheld the decision during a closed-door hearing on July 6. The Chattanooga Police Department has arrested two women in connection with child abuse allegations at the shelter.

Mark Baugh, a lawyer with Baker Donelson representing the Baptiste Group, argued the organization took corrective action after the allegations. The organization met the licensing and safety standards of the state during its eight months of operation, Baugh argued, and the state has not stated specifically what statute or regulations are out of compliance.

Inspection records provided by DCS show the department did not issue any corrective action during its scheduled and unannounced site visits. A summary of the unannounced June 3 site visit stated that "all of the youth had made positive comments about their treatment and general conditions within the program, that the files were well organized and complete and that the physical inspection had yielded no findings or need for corrective action," according to documents provided by the state.

"We are not asking them how to fix it," Baugh said. "We are asking them, according to the rules, where are we not playing by the rules such that we can fix it? We have taken two attempts by ourselves to fix it."

The Baptiste Group's license for residential child care expires Feb. 27, 2022, if it is not renewed by the state.

"Where the Baptiste Group sits now is the state is attempting to run the clock out on the Baptiste Group by keeping us in limbo," Baugh said. "There's a summary suspension. They keep on saying we have not complied with the statute or the regulations, but they haven't pointed what statute or what regulations that we have violated."

Lexie Ward, assistant attorney general for Tennessee, argued DCS has a responsibility to ensure the safety of children housed at licensed facilities, which includes oversight of the employees who work at such operations.

Ward argued the state's investigation into the Chattanooga shelter was hindered by the Baptiste Group's removal of children from the facility on June 22 after more allegations of potential child abuse were reported.

"Children were no longer in the facility," Ward said. "There has been no way to ascertain whether any employees that still remain at the facility have not also been a part of any other assaults upon the children. So there's no way to really do that investigation and ensure that the prior employee roster at the facility is safe for children."

During a hearing of the state's special committee on immigrants and refugees last week, DCS officials said an investigation of potential child abuse at the shelter remains ongoing. The Baptiste Group argued previously the state reviewed and approved the personnel file of an employee later arrested for potential abuse.

A summary of the July 6 hearing revealed that after learning of an abuse allegation the state did not conduct interviews with other children at the facility, who could have been victims of abuse, despite a request from the facility's director to do so before those children were placed with a vetted sponsor.

Baugh said the Baptiste Group employs around 90 people who are still being paid while the license is suspended because the organization wants to retain its staff since many of them are bilingual, a skill that can be difficult to hire. Baugh said the state has not contacted any of the employees who could be potential witnesses.

Moskal questioned why the state has not filed its documents in its case for revocation of the Baptiste Group's license given a month and a half has passed since the initial suspension and the Tennessee statute requires for the revocation proceedings to begin "promptly."

"And here we are six weeks after the July 1 summary suspension, and I don't know what the department's position is as to what 'promptly institute and determine' those proceedings are, but six weeks seems to be pushing that envelope," Moskal said.

Doug Dimond, general counsel for DCS, said this revocation is the department's first since he began working there in 2011 and the delay is due, in part, to waiting for a transcript of the administrative law judge proceedings. Dimond told the court there was an issue getting the recording from the Secretary of State's office since the proceeding was recorded on an iPhone and he was told it would take "30 or 40 hours of tech time when they could find it to produce the audio."

Dimond said he received the audio last week and the department is working on a transcript, which will be part of the state's evidence, along with other evidence. Once the transcript is complete, the state can move forward with revocation proceedings, he said.

"It is to everyone's benefit to move forward promptly, and we intend to do so as the right thing to do and, it's in our view, the required thing by the relevant statute," he said.

In a statement to the Times Free Press, Dimond said the initial suspension of the Baptiste Group's license was to ensure safety and the next step is the formal revocation process.

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