NASHVILLE — A state administrative law judge on Tuesday closed to the public and news organizations access to an informal hearing on the Tennessee Department of Children's Services' summary suspension of a Chattanooga shelter for unaccompanied migrant children.
Judge Phillip R. Hilliard's order came despite a request by the Georgia-based Baptiste Group's attorney, Mark Baugh, who argued proceedings should be open to the public.
The nonprofit group is challenging the state's July 1 suspension arising from allegations involving child abuse and a teenage boy running away from the facility in mid-June.
Chattanooga Police arrested a 35-year-old female worker last week on charges involving alleged sexual battery by an authority figure of a 17-year-old male teen, coercion of a witness and tampering with evidence.
"On behalf of Baptiste, we are against closure of this proceeding on several grounds," Baugh said, adding the proceedings would not reveal the names of any children who had been housed in the currently-shuttered facility on the old Temple University campus.
Baugh said DCS staff's position "does not support" closing the facility and that there is "no chance" that the identity of the child or any other children would be revealed.
"This proceeding is about the suspension," Baugh argued. "The name of the child has not been indicated in any of the filings." The proceeding "pertains to the licensure of the Baptiste Group," he added.
Hilliard reviewed a number of Tennessee confidentiality statutes applying to records and information regarding children and their families in what he described as the "breadth of confidentiality of records that involved children receiving service from the state."
He noted the department must maintain those guidelines even though district attorneys general prosecuting criminal cases don't have such restrictions.
But for state officials, Hilliard said, the need for restrictions "outweighs any right or need for the proceeding to be made open at this point."
The judge noted that the matter was discussed during an earlier pre-hearing conference on the protective order, keeping the information closed for now.
"There may be some documents that the department or the licensee could agree should not be made confidential and could be public after hearing," added Hilliard, who also said journalists and the public could not be present as the actual hearing on Baptiste Group's appeal of the suspension is heard.
The allegations regarding the Baptiste Group's operation in Chattanooga came following weeks of criticism by Tennessee's two Republican U.S. senators, Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty, as well as U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, an Ooltewah Republican, over the migrant children coming into the state, especially in Chattanooga.
The administration of Republican Gov. Bill Lee licensed the shelter last year and renewed and expanded the license in February. He has been critical of the federal government on issues such as transparency. Most of the Chattanooga-area uproar came after WRCB-TV in May aired video of migrant youth coming through a private facility at the Chattanooga airport and placed into vans.
The federal lawmakers have lambasted President Joe Biden's administration over the increases in the number of unaccompanied migrant children being brought into the state under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services. State Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, have been conducting hearings.
Tennessee Republican lawmakers are holding hearings on the situation with the House and Senate speakers taking an unusual step of not appointing a single Democrat to the panel.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.
Amid migrant shelter investigation, Hakeem raises questions about state suspension of Baptiste Group license