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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / The Old Tennessee Temple University dorm building in Highland Park is seen on Monday, April 12, 2021, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

NASHVILLE — The nonprofit group that operated a Chattanooga shelter for unaccompanied migrant children is suing the state of Tennessee to get its license reinstated.

The state Department of Children's Services suspended the operation over allegations of sexual misconduct involving two staffers' interactions with teens temporarily housed at the facility under a federal contract that dates back to the administration of former President Donald Trump.

In its lawsuit, the Georgia-based Baptiste Group is seeking to overturn last week's ruling by a state administrative law judge. The judge upheld DCS Commissioner Jennifer Nichols' suspension order for the shelter, licensed by the state last year. The facility opened Oct. 29, 2020, and operated as La Casa de Sidney.

The Baptiste Group alleges in its lawsuit that it has been denied due process. The suit notes Baptiste had previously apprised various federal agencies, including the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, as well as DCS officials of several of the problems and taken actions to address them.

Charges against the two staffers, later fired by Baptiste, involved separate incidents in which the women allegedly kissed two different teenage boys. Chattanooga police and Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston's office investigated and have filed criminal charges against the women.

One fundamental allegation made in the lawsuit is that the state is discriminating against the Baptiste Group over its mission and treating it differently from similar Tennessee agencies dealing with children and youth.

"While in no way condoning the actions of those terminated former employees or discounting the egregiousness of the allegations, the immediate suspension of operations based on those allegations while not doing the same for other agencies with similar incidents demonstrates bias and prejudice," states the lawsuit, filed by Nashville-based law firm Bass, Berry & Sims.

The lawsuit further charges that DCS' Residential Child Care Agency "was improperly motivated by bias, racial prejudice and the like with respect to the migrant children."

The lawsuit claims evidence of similar situations at other shelters that did not result in similar outcomes. The lawsuit contends that, unlike those other service providers not penalized by DCS, Baptiste Group "is a minority-owned business and serves the unaccompanied minor population who primarily come from Central America."

Filing of the lawsuit comes amid an already highly charged political atmosphere over the movement of migrant children and teens into the U.S. both nationally and within Tennessee.

The Chattanooga-area uproar came after WRCB-TV Channel 3 in May aired video of migrant youth coming through a private facility at the Chattanooga airport and boarding vans. The unaccompanied migrant children and teens are being brought into the state under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and then dispersed to relatives or other approved caregivers.

Tennessee's two U.S. senators, Republicans Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty, as well as U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, an Ooltewah Republican, have weighed in, singling out the Chattanooga shelter and using it to criticize Democratic President Joe Biden's administration.

Lee's administration licensed the shelter last year, then renewed and expanded the license in February, when the matter was not controversial.

The TV report about the travels of the children ignited controversy starting in May. Since then, state Republican lawmakers have been conducting hearings into the issues. No Democrats were placed on the panel.

Administrative Law Judge Phillip R. Hilliard held a July 7 hearing on Baptiste's initial challenge to the state's license suspension, closing proceedings to the public and news organizations despite a request by the group's attorney, Mark Baugh, who argued proceedings should be open.

Hilliard's July 14 order later upheld the suspension, and the state is now moving to revoke the Baptiste Group's license permanently.

Jennifer Donnals, Commissioner Nichols' chief of staff, stated in an email Wednesday that DCS officials "received copies of the motion and petition this morning. Our legal office is reviewing them, and we are unable to make any comments on the pending litigation."

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a Chattanooga Republican whose district includes a number of immigrant families from Mexico and Central America, has raised questions about the attacks on Baptiste.

"I've been asking everybody all along to just let's get the facts out there and quit all the politicizing and speech-making and everything," Gardenhire said. "One thing about a lawsuit — when you have the threat of perjury involved, the courts can determine what the truth is."

If what the Baptiste Group is alleging in its lawsuit is factual, Gardenhire said, "the Department of Children's Services really has a lot to answer and so does the administrative law judge. And, more importantly, from Sen. Hagerty for blowing this thing all out of proportion if those facts in that lawsuit are found to be true."

Nichols suspended Baptiste's license to operate on July 1 after an unannounced site inspection on June 3. The facility, a one-time dormitory at the defunct Tennessee Temple University now owned by Redemption to the Nations Church, provides short-term housing, personal care, supervision and monitoring for minors classified as "unaccompanied minor children" by the U.S. Department of Human Services. Baptiste's contract is with the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

The lawsuit says that Baptiste "has enforced and abided by the approved standards to prevent, detect, and respond to sexual abuse and sexual harassment in the facility."

On May 20, 2021, the lawsuit says, Baptiste officials learned that a minor had alleged to a clinician that the minor had seen a staffer kissing a then-17-year-old male minor. Both denied the allegations, as did another minor identified as a witness, who denied ever seeing that happen.

Baptiste suspended the staffer pending an internal investigation and reported the situation to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the Office of Inspector General of U.S. Health and Human Services and the FBI, as well as the Department of Child Protective Services. In addition, it filed an incident report with Chattanooga police, according to the lawsuit.

Baptiste officials immediately suspended the staffer, who was later charged by Chattanooga police with sexual battery by an authority figure.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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