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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.

Note: Additional background information was added into this story at 8:15 p.m. on July 1.

The Tennessee Department of Children's Services has suspended the child care license of the Baptiste Group, closing the Chattanooga shelter for unaccompanied migrant children.

In a news release Thursday evening, the Tennessee Department of Children's Services said the license was suspended due to a series of issues related to the facility, including an allegation of child abuse and a teenage boy running away from the shelter in mid-June. All children were moved from the facility on June 22.

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, a member of the state's special committee investigating immigration, told the Times Free Press the license was also suspended because of staffing concerns.

"I've been informed by DCS that they've suspended the license for lack of qualified people to take care of the children," Gardenhire said. "So therefore they're going to suspend their license in light of the problems they've had."

The shelter in Highland Park was run by Georgia-based Baptiste Group through a federal contract with the Department of Health and Human Services. The Tennessee Department of Children's Services, under the administration of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, approved the child care license for the facility in May 2020 and children began arriving there in November 2020.

Gardenhire said his main concern was the welfare of the children, and the shutdown was appropriate.

"If they can't hire people that will treat the children right and do the job properly and train them properly, then they ought to have their license suspended," he said. "What I've been interested in is the treatment of the children and not these other issues."

State inspectors learned of an instance of possible child abuse during an unannounced site visit on June 3. A child told an inspector he saw a staff member kiss another child. At the time of the report, the child had left the facility and directors of the shelter later told the state the staff member was fired.

On Wednesday, the Chattanooga Police Department announced charges against a 35-year-old woman for sexual battery by an authority figure, coercion of a witness and tampering with evidence. CPD said Randi Duarte's arrest was related to a complaint the police department received on May 21, nearly two weeks before the state reported an allegation of abuse.

Chattanooga police did not say whether the arrest announced Wednesday was related to the June 3 allegation.

On June 14, a 16-year-old boy went missing from the facility. CPD announced Wednesday the boy was found safe with his family in Guatemala.

The state cited the missing child, the June 3 allegation of child abuse and the arrest announced Wednesday as reason to revoke the license. 

In the state-mandated order suspending the license, which was sent to the directors of the Baptiste Group, DCS Commissioner Jennifer Nichols wrote the suspicion was "based upon a finding that the health, safety or welfare of the children in the care of the Facility imperatively requires such emergency action."

That comes in contrast to the DCS the report of the June 3 inspection, in which the director of the facility 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."

The state reviewed personnel files during inspections of the facility, including a review of six files in February and seven in June. According to the February inspection report, 61 staff were employed at the facility. The state did not issue any corrective action at the time.

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.

In early June, members of Lee's administration said it did not have sufficient evidence to investigate the facility.

The closure of the shelter comes after more than two months of public scrutiny and strong emotions about the facility that included accusations of human trafficking, a special investigative committee in the statehouse, shouting at a school board meeting over concerns the children would be educated in Chattanooga and proposed legislation in Congress.

In April, news broke that Redemption to the Nations Church was leasing an unused dormitory to the Baptiste Group to house unaccompanied migrant children through a federal contract. The church's campus in Highland Park became the target of in-person and online attention with people live-streaming outside the facility and others accusing the federal government of a lack of transparency regarding what was happening in the building.

Kevin Wallace, lead pastor of Redemption to the Nations, said his faith motivated him to offer the space to care for the children. He asked the community to separate politics from the compassion that was needed, though he expressed anger after receiving a flurry of hateful comments.

Wallace did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

In May, state and federal elected officials expressed outrage about the lack of transparency after video surfaced of children getting off a plane in Chattanooga to be transported to the shelter near downtown or taken to be placed with sponsors.

Gov. Lee said he declined a request from the Biden administration to house unaccompanied children in the state because he was concerned about "human trafficking." The governor accused the federal government of participating in or facilitating trafficking multiple times in the past two months.

It was never exactly clear how Lee's recent posture squared with his administration's own licensure of the facility last year, or renewal in February. When reporters would ask him about it, he would bring up refugees -- a separate population of children from those in the Chattanooga shelter. 

Under state law, the Baptiste Group has three days to appeal the suspension. Officials from the group have not spoken publicly.

Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, said, "The state of Tennessee has very limited jurisdiction in this program that is constructed to keep the unaccompanied alien children in federal custody with extremely limited information about the program and teenagers involved. I applaud the work of DCS in the unannounced visit that has led to this information and see the need for more information sharing from the federal agencies to protect these juveniles who are reportedly here after being separated from their parents or family."

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

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