Tennessee licensed migrant shelter in Chattanooga a year before outrage, national calls for transparency

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / The old Tennessee Temple Dorm building is seen on Wednesday, May 26, 2021, in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Staff photo by Troy Stolt / The old Tennessee Temple Dorm building is seen on Wednesday, May 26, 2021, in Chattanooga, Tenn.
photo Staff photo by Troy Stolt / The old Tennessee Temple Dorm building is seen on Wednesday, May 26, 2021, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The Tennessee Department of Children's Services approved a license for a Chattanooga shelter to house unaccompanied migrant children a year ago, before Gov. Bill Lee and other state officials this month expressed outrage about the transport of migrant youth through the state to shelters like the one near downtown.

Last week, Lee joined demands from members of Tennessee's Congressional delegation for more transparency about the movement of migrant children after WRCB aired video of children being transported from the Chattanooga airport to regional shelters.

On Twitter, the governor wrote he had "called on the administration to secure the border & stop scattering children across the country."

But, a year earlier, the Lee administration approved a residential child care license for the Georgia-based federal contractor the Baptiste Group to house unaccompanied minors in the Chattanooga shelter, according to documents from the Tennessee Department of Children's Services. The shelter began providing care for children in November 2020 as part of a network of federally-funded shelters across the country.

"The state of Tennessee's engagement with Baptiste Group is in a regulatory capacity, i.e., determining this a space that can safely accommodate children," Lee spokesperson Laine Arnold said by email. "DCS does not hold a contract for child placement at Baptiste, nor does the department determine what services Baptiste group will deliver, or to whom, under their federal contract with Health and Human Services.

"The state's role in facility licensure should not be interpreted as coordination with the federal government for the placement of unaccompanied children."

The Tennessee government approved the Baptiste Group's application for a residential child care license in May 2020. The state renewed the license in February 2021 after an on-site inspection. The most recent license, a copy of which was obtained by the Times Free Press, was signed by Jennifer Nichols, the commissioner of Tennessee's Department of Children's Services, whom Lee appointed to the position in January 2019.

During the application process for the residential care license, the state was provided a copy of the federal contract between the Baptiste Group and the Department of Health and Human Services, according to documents provided by the state.

"This contract is to provide housing, personal care, supervision and monitoring to up to 100 unaccompanied minor children," the charter application reads. "This facility will provide short-term care to children, ideally up to 30 days, until they are reunited with a sponsor home or appear at an immigration hearing where other arrangements are ordered."

Which Office of Refugee Resettlement program is being run in Chattanooga?

The Office of Refugee Resettlement oversees a refugee minors program, in which children are typically approved for refugee status before arriving in the United States, and an unaccompanied children program, in which the children do not have lawful immigration status to be in the country and must go through immigration proceedings during which they could apply for asylum.The application submitted for the Baptiste Group to operate the Chattanooga shelter states the facility will care for “unaccompanied minors in the Office of Refugee Resettlement custody” but does not specify which ORR program for children.The Times Free Press requested clarity from the Department of Health and Human Services about which ORR program is being run in the Chattanooga shelter. That request was not answered in time for publication.ORR’s website for the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program, last updated in March 2021, says the program works with providers in 15 states and does not list Tennessee as participating.

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.

The Times Free Press asked the governor's office three times over two days if the state planned to revoke the residential child care license for the Chattanooga shelter or not renew it when it comes due in February 2022. The governor's office did not offer a response to that question, instead largely commenting on federal actions.

"Accounts that children are being flown into our state (on chartered planes), in the dead of night, with no explanation or accounting from federal agencies sounds shockingly akin to human trafficking," Arnold said. "And how are we to know otherwise?"

Controversy about the movement of migrant children in Southeast Tennessee erupted twice in the past two months.

In April, it was revealed that Redemption to the Nations Church leased an unused building on the former Tennessee Temple University campus to the Baptiste Group to temporarily house unaccompanied migrant children. Then, last week, WRCB published the video of migrant children arriving at Chattanooga's airport.

In response to the video, Lee, as well as members of Tennessee's Congressional delegation, expressed anger about the lack of transparency from the Biden administration as it moved children away from the border to federally funded shelters, like the one in Hamilton County, without notifying local officials about where the children were going and how many were arriving. The Congressional officials said Tennessee residents should have a right to know when migrants are moving into the state.

photo Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Governor Bill Lee walks through the halls of Cleveland High School during his visit on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020 in Cleveland, Tenn.

"The Biden Administration has NOT been clear about how they are handling unaccompanied minors," Arnold said in a statement. "The most 'insight' that we have had into placement occurred when the administration asked states if they would permit unaccompanied minors to be housed in National Guard facilities and we declined that request on March 19, 2021."

The state was informed when unaccompanied minors began arriving at the Chattanooga facility in November 2020, according to documents from the Tennessee Department of Children's Services. According to state licensing standards, care facilities must provide monthly reports to the state, and ORR policy requires care facilities to comply with state welfare regulations.

As of May 20, there were 68 children at the Chattanooga shelter, according to data from the Tennessee Department of Children's Services.

Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, said in a statement that state lawmakers need to put compassion and dignity first.

"This moment calls us to rise the opportunity to live up to our highest ideals as a nation, that families and children seeking safety and protection are welcomed with dignity," Sherman-Nikolaus said. "But instead of supporting efforts to make our country more compassionate and humane, Tennessee lawmakers are attacking immigrant families and children seeking safety at our border."

Much of the current federal policy overseeing unaccompanied minors was passed into law with bipartisan support in 2008 under President George W. Bush. The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 stopped the adult detention model for children and placed them in federally funded shelters, which include on-site education and medical care, until a sponsor could be found.

The Biden administration allowed immigration proceedings for children to resume, which critics say is fueling the record number of border crossings, but the president has not lifted several controversial Trump immigration policies related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including expelling people who cross the border illegally to Mexico or their home countries over fears of spreading the virus in the United States.

Staff writer Andy Sher contributed to this report.

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