State and federal authorities, along with local law enforcement, are investigating a report of child abuse at a Chattanooga facility that has come under fire from Tennessee's Republican lawmakers for housing migrant children picked up by federal border authorities.
The abuse was reported to officials with the Department of Children's Services, accompanied by an interpreter, by a teenage boy at the facility during a surprise inspection, DCS Commissioner Jennifer Nichols told lawmakers on Wednesday. The boy reported he had witnessed abuse, not that he was the victim.
The Department of Children's Services, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and local law enforcement are investigating, Nichols said.
Nichols did not disclose details of the allegations made by the boy. He was one of six children selected at random by DCS inspectors for an interview.
As of Tuesday, there were 41 youths housed at the facility, Nichols told lawmakers during a routine report on DCS activities during the Government Operations Joint Subcommittee on Education, Health and General Welfare. The facility was licensed last year by the Department of Children's Services to house children aged 12-17, and the license was renewed in February. Most of the children are boys.
The department has the authority to conduct two unannounced site visits and one announced visit at all of the facilities it licenses, Nichols said. The abuse disclosure came during one of these unannounced visits, the week of May 31.
One of the six children who was interviewed "disclosed that he had witnessed an act that in our policy would substantiate and require an investigation into that act taking place," Nichols said.
"A referral was made to our own hotline, " she said. "Local law enforcement was immediately notified. The D.A.'s office was notified. Since the day after that unannounced site visit, there's been an ongoing investigation involving local law enforcement, FBI was notified, the Office of Inspector General for ORR - they call that the Office of Refugee Resettlement - and the federal Homeland Security have all been notified and are working in collaboration with local law enforcement and our department to investigate what this youth disclosed to Mr. Anderson that he witnessed."
Mark Anderson, director of licensing for Department of Children's Services, interviewed the boy.
The Chattanooga facility, operated by the nonprofit Baptiste Group, offers a temporary shelter to unaccompanied migrant children until they can be placed elsewhere. The facility was licensed by the Department of Children's Services to provide shelter in May 2020, but is not run by DCS. The home contracts with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, to temporarily house up to 100 unaccompanied minors.
When WRCB Broke the news of a late-night flight to Chattanooga transporting children to Tennessee in May, many state Republican leaders expressed concern over the lack of transparency from the federal government about the children's presence.
U.S. Sens. Marsha Blackburn, Bill Hagerty and U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann filed legislation to require the federal government to consult with states before transporting migrants to the state.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee requested the U.S. Senate conduct hearings on the unaccompanied migrant children.
A special joint committee of the Tennessee Legislature will meet Friday to study the issue.
At Wednesday's hearing, Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, questioned how widespread abuse is at the facility.
"Based on everything you said, this facility did not report this abuse until it was disclosed to you it never happened until you took the time to sit down with this individual and ask them questions that was disclosed to you," Ragan asked.
DCS officials acknowledged the report of abuse did not come from staff at the facility.
"How do we know that there are not 40 to 50 kids over there who have [been] abused," Ragan asked, before then expressing concern about the potential for gang involvement by the children at the facility.
"One thing I guarantee you is if they are of educational age, they all wind up in our schools," he said. "They all wind up in our facilities. They all wind up in Tennessee.
"We're not talking about refugees who are coming from war-torn Somalia or North Africa where people are being persecuted for just being a certain religion. These are people coming across the border, illegally, into our country that are being deemed refugees - which is not even close to being who they are - being sent to our communities here in Chattanooga, which is two and a half hours down the road to being dropped off to other places of Tennessee where we don't know where they're going.
"We have a problem with gang violence problem in our schools. Key recruitment tool going on right here, folks. Should we not, with this unprecedented amount of refugees hitting our doorsteps, why wouldn't the department take it upon themselves to start to screen all these kids that are coming from the border just to make sure that they're not being trafficked through our facilities."
Nichols responded, "What I can tell you, sir, is that the investigation is ongoing. Many more youth have been interviewed and the investigation is continuing. As I said, local and federal are very involved in that interview."
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