'Do not say anything': More information revealed about possible child abuse at Chattanooga migrant shelter

Contributed photo / Randi Jean Duarte
Contributed photo / Randi Jean Duarte
photo Contributed photo / Randi Jean Duarte

A woman arrested last week in connection with an alleged sexual battery at a Chattanooga shelter for migrant children was allegedly sexually involved with a 17-year-old boy there and tried to convince him not to give information to investigators about their relationship, police said.

The Chattanooga Police Department announced the arrest of Randi Jean Duarte on June 30 and charged the 35-year-old with sexual battery by an authority figure, coercion of a witness and tampering with evidence.

According to an affidavit from a Chattanooga police officer, Duarte kissed the child in the facility's shower room and the child's bedroom. The facility was monitored by 74 security cameras, except for in the children's bedrooms and bathrooms, according to documents obtained from the Tennessee Department of Children's Services.

In late June, federal investigators interviewed the child and his uncle. According to the affidavit, the child had told his uncle that Duarte wanted to marry him. Chattanooga police obtained a search warrant for cell phone messages, which showed Duarte telling the child "do not say anything" to the investigators.

The cellphone messages also show Duarte saying she will delete messages from her phone before being interviewed by investigators, the document states.

The arrest announced last week came weeks after state inspectors were told of possible child abuse during a June 3 inspection of the facility. During that unannounced site visit, a child staying at the shelter told an inspector he saw a staff member kissing a child migrant. The police affidavit states there had been "other anonymous reports" about a staff member kissing a child in the showers.

Local and state officials have not said whether Duarte's arrest is in connection with the June 3 inspection or related to other possible reports of potential abuse. The police affidavit states the responding officer was "notified of several complaints and police reports being filed by Child Protective Services about inappropriate behavior" between staff and children at the shelter. Copies of any such complaints have not yet been made public.

Last week, the Tennessee Department of Children's Services suspended the child care license of the Baptiste Group, the organization that was operating the shelter through a federal contract. The state cited a series of issues related to the facility, including the June 3 allegation of child abuse, Duarte's arrest and a teenage boy who went missing from the shelter in mid-June. All children were moved from the facility June 22.

The Baptiste Group, based in Georgia, is appealing the state's decision.

The shelter opened last year at a former Temple University building under a contract between Baptiste and the federal government under former President Donald Trump.

The state Department of Children's Services reviewed all personnel files for staff when Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee's administration first approved a child care license for the shelter 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 require any corrective action.

When Duarte was hired at the shelter, or whether the state reviewed her personnel file, has not been made public.

Duarte also allegedly sent a message to the child saying she was going to jail because someone "is not going down by herself," according to the police affidavit. The identity of the person Duarte was referring to in the message was redacted in the public copy of the affidavit.

Duarte's hearing date is scheduled for Aug. 31.

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

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