Child abuse investigation of Chattanooga migrant shelter involves fired staff member, allegation of kissing

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Redemption to the Nations is housing unaccompanied migrant children who arrived at the border in recent weeks in an unused former Tennessee Temple dormitory that the church leases.
Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Redemption to the Nations is housing unaccompanied migrant children who arrived at the border in recent weeks in an unused former Tennessee Temple dormitory that the church leases.

The allegation of child abuse at the Chattanooga shelter housing unaccompanied migrant children involved a former staff member allegedly kissing a child who was then staying at the facility, according to an inspection report obtained by the Times Free Press.

The Tennessee Department of Children's Services performed an unannounced inspection of the Chattanooga shelter on June 3, the same day DCS Commissioner Jennifer Nichols sent a letter, along with three other state commissioners, to Tennessee House Government Operations Committee Chairman John Ragan saying the state did not have information or the authority to otherwise investigate the Chattanooga shelter.

During the June 3 inspection, employees of the state reviewed seven personnel files and interviewed six of the 62 children staying at the facility. According to the report, all six children said staff treated them well and said they felt safe around other children and staff. One child told inspectors medicine was not provided when he reported a sore throat.

One child told the state inspectors he saw a staff member kiss another child staying at the facility. The child has since left the shelter. According to DCS officials, the allegation was reported to the state child abuse hotline on June 3, in the afternoon, after the inspection.

According to the report, the director of the shelter told the state on June 5 the accused employee had been fired.

The previously unspecified abuse allegation, revealed in general terms earlier this week, prompted an investigation from state and federal authorities, including DCS, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The Chattanooga shelter housing unaccompanied migrant children opened last year, licensed by the state government of Gov. Bill Lee, with federal funding that started during the administration of former President Donald Trump.

Outrage about the movement of migrant children through the state to be placed with sponsors or housed in temporary shelters like the one in Highland Park erupted last month when WRCB aired video of children getting off an airplane at Chattanooga's airport.

Lee accused President Joe Biden's administration of participating in human trafficking and members of Tennessee's congressional delegation joined the governor in demanding more transparency from the Biden administration.

The Tennessee Department of Children's Services licensed the shelter in May 2020 and renewed the license in February 2021. Children began arriving at the Chattanooga shelter in November 2020. As of Monday, there were 39 children at the facility, according to data from DCS.

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

According to the DCS report, children typically arrive at the Chattanooga facility by van or bus after being flown from the border to Atlanta or Nashville. Several youth arrive at the facility at a time, though the highest on a single day was nine children.

Unaccompanied migrant children who cross the border are initially in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection, which have three days to move them away from a temporary border shelter to a shelter run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. Children stay in ORR shelters for about a month while caseworkers locate and vet a sponsor, usually a relative, to take custody of the child until immigration proceedings can begin.

On June 3, the facility director told state inspectors aggressive or disruptive youth are removed from the program and placed in a different program within the federal immigration system. The state was told three fights had broken out among youth but, at that time, no youth had run away from the facility.

However, on Wednesday, the Chattanooga Police Department said a 16-year-old boy went missing from the facility on June 14.

The same day DCS performed its unannounced site visit to Chattanooga, DCS Commissioner Nichols was among four members of Lee's cabinet to write in a letter to the Tennessee House Government Operations Committee chairman saying the state did not have any information or the authority to initiate an investigation of the shelter.

In a statement, DCS said the on-site inspection occurred over several hours the same day the letter was sent. The director of licensing, who helped conduct the visit, called the state child abuse hotline after leaving the facility.

According to the DCS report, the director of the facility was notified the child abuse allegation had been reported and was "advised 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."

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