Tennessee suspended one child care license since 2016: the license of Chattanooga's migrant shelter

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.

The Tennessee Department of Children's Services suspended one residential child care license in the past five years, according to data from the department.

The lone suspension is that of the Baptiste Group, the federal contractor that operated the shelter in Chattanooga for unaccompanied migrant children, and the shelter operators believe the state unjustly targeted their facility.

On July 20, the Baptiste Group filed a petition for review in Davidson County Chancery Court to get its license reinstated.

"Other agencies under the licensing authority of the Department who have had similar allegations of inappropriate conduct by staff members with minors in their care and custody have not had orders of summary suspension issued against them and have been allowed to continue to operate," the lawsuit reads. "The only difference between those other agencies and [The Baptiste Group] is the fact that TBG is a minority-owned business and serves the unaccompanied minor population who primarily come from Central America."

The lawsuit alleges that during an informal hearing this month in which the Baptiste Group appealed the state's suspension, DCS director of licensing Mark Anderson testified that the facility was placed under "intense scrutiny" because it served unaccompanied minors. The state barred the public and media from the hearing.

An administrative judge upheld the state's decision, writing "The egregiousness of this type of conduct is irrefutable."

The Baptiste Group operated the shelter in Highland Park for about eight months before allegations of sexual abuse and a child running away prompted the state to suspend the group's child care license. The facility faced weeks of public scrutiny from state lawmakers in May and June, after WRCB-TV Channel 3 published cell phone video of children getting off a plane in Chattanooga.

On June 30, the Chattanooga Police Department announced it had arrested a 35-year-old woman who worked at the facility on charges of sexual battery by an authority figure, coercion of a witness and tampering with evidence. Two weeks later, police announced the arrest of a second staff member at the facility, a 22-year-old woman who was charged with sexual battery by an authority figure.

There are 29 facilities with the same child care license the Baptiste Group had operating in Tennessee, according to data from DCS. The Baptiste Group is the only organization to have its license suspended in the past five years.

The Times Free Press requested data from DCS about how many allegations of child abuse the department received in the past five years related to residential child care agencies the state licensed.

Jennifer Donnals, DCS chief of staff, said the department could not provide that data since the department does not track allegations based on location.

"Our records are based on the name of the alleged perpetrator or name of the alleged child victim, not the location of the allegation or the workplace of the alleged perpetrator," Donnals wrote in an email.

Donnals said the department would not be making any public comments related to the pending litigation.

(READ MORE: Tennessee's special immigration committee sees cost estimates of migrant children to state)

In its lawsuit, the Baptiste Group alleges it was denied due process. The group alleges its staff were properly trained and that DCS did not find any issues with personnel, residents or the facility that warranted corrective action.

During an unannounced facility inspection on June 3, when an allegation of possible abuse was first reported to DCS, the state inspector wrote "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."

The Baptiste Group alleges the state inspected the personnel file for one of the women later arrested for potential abuse during the June 3 visit and found nothing wrong.

"While in no way condoning the actions of those terminated former employees or discounting the egregiousness of the allegations, the immediate suspension of operations based on those allegations while not doing the same for other agencies with similar incidents demonstrates bias and prejudice," the lawsuit stated.

According to state code, DCS is typically required to provide written notice to an agency of a violation and, if the violation is not corrected, place the agency on probation. However, the state code allows that "if the department determines at any time that the health, safety or welfare of the children in care of the child care agency imperatively requires emergency action, and incorporates a finding to that effect in its order, summary suspension of the license may be ordered by the department pending any further proceedings for revocation, denial or other action."

The June 3 allegation of abuse, along with an allegation from May 20 that DCS did not investigate, sparked an internal investigation and investigation from local and federal law enforcement, eventually leading to the two arrests.

The Baptiste Group alleges it asked DCS investigators to come to Chattanooga to interview all children at the facility before those children left to be placed with a sponsor, part of the Baptiste Group's regular operations as a federally funded shelter.

DCS investigators did not interview all the children at the facility after the June 3 allegation was reported. When the Times Free Press asked Donnals about this, the chief of staff replied in an email,"While we dispute the premise of this question, we are unable to comment on pending child abuse investigations."

The Baptiste Group also says it took steps to ensure greater safety at the facility, which included moving all children out of the facility for several weeks to provide more staff training, even though the state did not issue any corrective action following the site visits or before suspending the facility's license.

The lawsuit stated, during the private appeal hearing, DCS said it cited the wrong state code in the original suspension order alleging the safety and welfare of children at the shelter required emergency action. A summary of the hearing also noted the state was limited in the evidence it could present to the judge because the original suspension order only cited three examples of potential mismanagement or wrongdoing. The state's special investigator, who testified at the 6 hearing, said the state did not consult her when it drafted its order to suspend the Baptiste Group's license.

Contact Wyatt Massey at [email protected] or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.