Tennessee to continue investigation into migrant children after Chattanooga shelter closure

Republican lawmaker criticizes other elected officials over 'shameful' use of children as pawns

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.

Tennessee's special committee investigating the presence and movement of immigrants in the state will continue its work even after the state shut down the Chattanooga shelter for migrant children that sparked the effort.

On Thursday, the Tennessee Department of Children's Services announced it had suspended the child care license of the Georgia-based Baptiste Group, which was operating the shelter in Highland Park through a federal contract.

In its decision, the state cited a series of issues related to the facility, including an allegation of child abuse, the arrest of a 35-year-old woman on suspicion of abuse and a teenage boy who went missing from the shelter in mid-June. All children were moved from the facility June 22.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker, and House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said the state's Study Committee on Refugee Issues will continue investigating the Chattanooga shelter and the group operating it, as well as the financial effect of federal immigration policy on Tennessee.

"As far as what this means to the group, they will continue to do their job and look into it," Sexton said. "It gives them another avenue to look at on this group and what was their ability and lack of controls in protecting the children."

The state created the all-Republican committee in May after WRCB aired footage of migrant children getting off a plane in Chattanooga to be transported throughout the region. The footage sparked weeks of public outrage and debate, which included accusations of human trafficking and proposed legislation in Congress.

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, a member of the special committee, said he wants the committee to continue its work, in part to address misinformation from his Republican colleagues.

"I hope that we continue on and some of these things can come to light, that they really shouldn't be picking on these children as an end to their means on the border," Gardenhire said. "I'm for closing the border, make no bones about it, I fought the Biden administration opening it up as it has. But that's different from our moral obligation to take care of these children once they're in our custody. And for our elected officials to be using them as a pawn with the ends to justify the means I think is shameful."

Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, who has been skeptical of the state's special committee, said he is concerned whether politics will be set aside as the all-Republican panel continues investigating.

"I think this is asking a whole lot of this group, the manner in which this committee was brought together," Hakeem said. "I question how they're going to, I guess, help the children when I look at some of these headlines prior to the committee being formed."

The shelter, known as La Casa de Sidney, opened on the old Temple University campus last year under a federal contract with the administration of Donald Trump, then the president. It was licensed by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee's Department of Children's Services, a license that was renewed in February.

Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Ooltewah, applauded the state's decision this month to suspend the license.

In a statement, Fleischmann said the Biden administration and its immigration policies led to the abuse and neglect of migrant children.

"I am glad to hear that the Department of [Children's] Services has taken decisive action to suspend the Baptiste Group's license to operate a child migrant facility in Chattanooga," Fleischmann said. "The safety and well-being of unaccompanied migrant children must always come first. There must be a transparent and thorough investigation into these horrific allegations. This sad situation should never have happened in the first place."

In May, Fleischmann and U.S. Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty sponsored a bill that would require the U.S. Health and Human Services secretary and the Homeland Security secretary to consult governors and local leaders about any proposed relocation or movement of people who had tried to enter the country illegally no less than three days before the transportation occurs.

"We must secure our southern border and build the wall," Blackburn said in a statement Friday. "This decision will make our community safer and protect innocent migrant children who are being used as pawns by open borders advocates."

Hagerty, in a statement Friday, called for a "broader investigation" of children in federal custody.

"It is past time for the Biden administration to take responsibility for the ongoing border crisis and its consequences, which I have been urging since January, and take real steps to protect both Americans and migrants by ending the crisis," Hagerty said.

Gardenhire criticized Hagerty's handling of the situation.

"In Sen. Hagerty's eyes, I would say that transparency is like pornography. It's in the eyes of the beholder," Gardenhire said. "He needs to tell us exactly what he wants to know and when he wants to know it and what he's going to do with the information instead of just mouthing off about 'I want transparency.' He needs to be more specific about what he wants and what he's going to do with the information once he gets it."

The next meeting for the state's special committee is July 13.

Jennifer Donnals, chief of staff at the Department of Children's Services, said in a Friday afternoon email that the Baptiste Group has requested an informal hearing to appeal the state's decision. A hearing date and time have not been scheduled.

In the order to suspend the license, DCS Commissioner Jennifer Nichols wrote the suspicion was "based upon a finding that the health, safety or welfare of the children in the care of the facility imperatively requires such emergency action."

"The facility has proven an inability to hire individuals who are suitable and capable of caring for the children within the facility's care resulting in significant criminal charges against at least one staff member and potential for youth to be subject to further abuse or lack of adequate supervision," Nichols wrote in the order.

The Department of Children's Services reviewed all personnel files for staff when the state first approved a child care license for the group in May 2020. A summary of the license application stated the Baptiste Group's personnel files "contain all required documentation, including background checks, internet registry checks, physicals and TB screenings, reference checks and proof of education."

State inspectors visited the facility for a routine visit in February and an unannounced visit in June. The inspectors spoke with children at the facility and reviewed personnel files of employees, six files in February and seven in June, and did not issue any corrective action.

The initial license for the Chattanooga shelter was for up to 50 children ages 12 to 17. Under state guidelines, the Department of Children's Services can limit the number of children allowed in a child care facility regardless of the facility's capacity. In February, when the department renewed the license, the state expanded the capacity to up to 100 children.

Donnals said in an email the department would not release more information about the situation because of state confidentiality laws.

"The DCS Division of Licensure reviews personnel records of licensed agencies to ensure that staff meet state regulations with regard to criminal background checks, academic qualifications and scope and frequency of training (including training on sexual abuse prevention and reporting)," Donnals said in the email.

Gretchen Baptiste and Kevin Baptiste, operators of the facility, did not respond to a request for comment.

The shelter in Highland Park had been a lightning rod since mid-April when news broke that Redemption to the Nations Church was leasing an unused dormitory to the Baptiste Group to house unaccompanied migrant children.

Kevin Wallace, lead pastor at Redemption to the Nations, did not respond to requests for comment about the shelter closing.

In May, state and federal elected officials expressed outrage about the lack of transparency after a video surfaced of children getting off a plane in Chattanooga to be transported to the shelter near downtown or taken to be placed with sponsors.

Gov. Lee said he declined a request from the Biden administration to house unaccompanied children in the state because he was concerned about "human trafficking." The governor has accused the federal government of participating in or facilitating trafficking multiple times in the past two months.

A spokesperson for Lee's office declined to offer comment on the situation and directed questions to the Department of Children's Services.

State inspectors learned of an instance of possible child abuse during an unannounced site visit on June 3. A child told an inspector he saw a staff member kiss another child. At the time of the report, the child had left the facility and directors of the shelter later told the state the staff member was fired.

On Wednesday, the Chattanooga Police Department announced charges against a 35-year-old woman for sexual battery by an authority figure, coercion of a witness and tampering with evidence. The police department said the arrest of Randi Duarte was in connection to a complaint it received May 21, nearly two weeks before the state reported an allegation of abuse.

Donnals said in an email the state was not made aware of any allegations before the June 3 report.

Chattanooga police did not say whether the arrest announced Wednesday was related to the June 3 allegation. CPD has not yet made a copy of the complaint available to the public.

On June 14, a 16-year-old boy went missing from the facility. Police announced Wednesday the boy was found safe with his family in Guatemala.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass. Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.