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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.

The commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Children's Services said the state can remove the child care license for a migrant shelter for children in Chattanooga, even if a state court overturns a temporary suspension.

The testimony came the same day the Chattanooga Police Department announced a second authority figure at the shelter has been charged with sexual battery.

During a hearing before the Legislature's special committee on immigrants, Children's Services Commissioner Jennifer Nichols said the relevant statute does not prevent the state from taking other steps to keep the facility closed.

"At this point, our review of the statute, even if the summary suspension is denied or overturned, is that our department still has the ability to pursue a revocation or other restrictive measures provided in the statute," Nichols said.

Children's Services suspended the residential child care license for the operator, Georgia-based Baptiste Group, on July 1.

The organization had housed unaccompanied migrant children at a facility in Highland Park under a federal contract. The Baptiste Group appealed the state's decision during an informal hearing on July 6 that was not public, despite a request from the Baptiste Group that it be conducted openly.

A ruling on the case had not been announced as of Tuesday evening.

During the Tuesday afternoon hearing, members of the special committee accused the Biden administration of human trafficking, a lack of transparency and interfering with investigations of potential child abuse at the Chattanooga facility.

On June 22, children at the Chattanooga facility were moved to other shelters or placed with sponsors after a series of high-profile incidents at the facility, including an allegation of child abuse on June 3 and a teenager who went missing June 14.

Nichols said the Baptiste Group told her department the children were moved to provide two weeks of training or retraining to facility staff.

Rep. Chris Todd, R-Madison County, said any possible witnesses or victims "disappeared at the hands of our federal government."

"It's certainly frustrating to me as a citizen that believes in justice that apparently a federal agency can just snatch up a victim and potential witnesses from a serious investigation and they just disappear overnight," Todd said. "It smells of a coverup, quite frankly."

Children housed at facilities like the one in Chattanooga are in federal custody. Chattanooga police and federal officials conducted an investigation in late June, including finding and interviewing a child who had left the facility. That investigation led to the arrest of a 35-year-old woman on charges of sexual battery by an authority figure, coercion of a witness and tampering with evidence.

On Tuesday, Chattanooga police said a second female at the shelter has been accused of sexual wrongdoing involving a juvenile victim. Police said they charged Florencia Guadalupe Renderos Morales, 22, with sexual battery by an authority figure. They offered no details of the battery.

The woman is in custody in Harris County, Texas, and will be extradited, police said.

Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, thanked the administration of Gov. Bill Lee for revoking the child care license and said he found it hard to believe the federal government would follow federal policy that requires a background check of sponsors before a child is placed with them.

"Those children are now gone, and none of this is communicated with anybody," Williams said. "That is, by definition, trafficking or exploiting children, and the federal government is doing it."

The federal government has placed unaccompanied migrant children with sponsors in Tennessee for years under several previous presidential administrations.

The Trump administration let the contract that allowed the Chattanooga shelter to open last year. The administration of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee approved a child care license for the facility in May 2020 and migrant children began arriving there in November 2020.

Nichols said Tuesday that the Department of Children's Services was aware of how the Chattanooga facility would be used when the Baptiste Group applied for a license in 2020.

Department officials said the Baptiste Group shelter was the only facility of its kind operating in Tennessee, though Bethany Christian Services places but does not house some children in foster care through a federal contract.

The DCS officials said Tuesday they did not have any concerns about personnel at the Baptiste Group shelter before the June 3 allegation of abuse, which was reported during an unannounced DCS inspection that day.

Yet, during questioning from committee members, Nichols made reference to the department potentially having knowledge of the May 21 allegation of abuse that led to the arrest last month.

Nichols then asked Helen Rodgers, assistant general counsel for the Department of Children's Services, to provide more information. Rodgers told the committee she could brief lawmakers outside of the public hearing about possible child abuse allegations but could not provide information during the hearing.

DCS inspectors interviewed six children during the June 3 inspection that led to the child abuse allegation. There were 62 children living at the facility at the time and Sen. Dawn White, R-Murfreesboro, asked if DCS interviewed all the other children there once it learned of the allegation.

Mark Anderson, director of licensing at the Department of Children's Services, said the department did not interview all children because DCS only has regulatory authority and leaves investigations to special units.

Rodgers told the committee the department is only "legally obligated to say" an investigation was conducted and that more information could be provided outside the public hearing.

Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, said the state's special committee is inconsistent with its calls for transparency, blaming the federal government for a lack of it around immigration but ignoring instances of it from the state, such as the closed hearing for the Baptiste Group.

"The term transparency in this instance, in my view, is what they want it to be," Hakeem said. "What I mean by that is one of the things that this committee was initially talking about was transparency from the federal government, what all is happening. But in my view, we are not getting transparency from the state."

Hakeem has been critical of the special committee, all of which is made up of Republicans, and said it is spreading rumors and misinformation.

"It's a very serious issue dealing with the well-being of refugee children," Hakeem said. "Unfortunately, what I'm hearing out of the committee is scapegoating of the Biden administration with rumors and innuendo. To me it feels more like the children are secondary as opposed to being the primary concern and interest in this process."

The next committee meeting is scheduled for August 12.

Staff writer Andy Sher contributed to this report.

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

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