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Staff Photo / The old Tennessee Temple University dorm building in Highland Park is seen in 2021 in Chattanooga.

NASHVILLE — A monthslong legal battle has ended between the state of Tennessee and a Georgia-based nonprofit group whose emergency shelter in Chattanooga for unaccompanied migrant minors was suspended by the state following allegations of sexual misconduct involving three staffers and several teens last July.

Davidson County Chancellor Patricia Head Moskal last week dismissed the lawsuit filed by the Baptiste Group, which ran the shelter under a federal contract issued under the administration of former President Donald Trump and was seeking reinstatement.

The dismissal came following a joint stipulation request submitted by Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery, attorneys for the state Department of Children's Services and the contractor requesting the chancellor dismiss the case.

Under the agreement, the Baptiste Group voluntarily withdrew its appeal of Moska's prior order upholding the summary suspension last summer of the group's state license. Baptiste also withdrew its January request to renew the license, which would have otherwise expired Feb. 27.

The settlement agreement states that the Baptiste Group can reapply for a license to operate.

It is unclear whether the Baptiste Group would have any interest in doing that in light of the 14-month uproar over its operations following an initial report and video aired by Chattanooga television station Local 3 News in May 2021.

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Settlement agreement

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The video showed migrant children and youth arriving by night on flights to Chattanooga Airport and being placed on buses to shelters or taken to sponsors who lived in the region.

One destination was La Casa de Sidney, the Baptiste shelter at a former Temple University dorm in Chattanooga, a shelter that was licensed by Gov. Bill Lee's administration — a license that had been renewed and expanded by the administration three months before the video aired.

Outraged conservatives in Tennessee and elsewhere used the news report to attack President Joe Biden's border policies and accuse the administration of trafficking children.

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, an Ooltewah Republican, raised concerns directly to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra during a legislative hearing and afterward.

Then came allegations last summer of sexual abuse at the facility involving minors.

The Tennessee Department of Children's Services later suspended the license of the facility.

Three workers were arrested and still face charges related to alleged abuse of minors.

Tennessee lawmakers set up an ad hoc state legislative committee, which held a series of hearings at which some GOP members, who hold a supermajority in both chambers of the General Assembly and on the committee, expressed concerns about Biden administration border policies.

The settlement says the state cannot use the suspension and revocation of the Baptiste group license in Chattanooga — or the reasons that led to the state actions — as a basis to prevent Baptiste Group from seeking or obtaining a license going forward.

Repeated efforts to contact co-owner Gretchen Baptiste by phone were unsuccessful as were efforts to reach her husband, Baptiste Group CEO Kevin Baptiste, by email.

Workers charged

State inspectors were told of possible child abuse during a June 3, 2021, inspection of the facility. During that unannounced site visit, a child staying at the shelter told an inspector he saw a staff member kissing a child migrant.

Chattanooga police investigated, and a police affidavit stated there had been "other anonymous reports" about a staff member kissing a child in the showers.

Among workers charged was Florencia Morales in a case alleging sexual battery by an authority figure. Then 22, Morales was bound over to the grand jury last year for charges related to allegedly kissing a then-17-year-old who was living at the shelter at the time. Last September, a second count of sexual battery was leveled against her after law enforcement identified a second potential juvenile victim.

Chattanooga police later announced the arrest of Randi Jean Duarte on June 30, 2021, and charged the 35-year-old with sexual battery by an authority figure, coercion of a witness and tampering with evidence after allegedly kissing a minor in a shower facility and a bedroom.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press also reported in March 2022 that Rebeka Perez faced one count of alleged sexual contact by an authority figure. Her case was delayed in court.

After the state closed the facility in 2021, all the minors were moved elsewhere.

Statehouse hearings

Tennessee's House and Senate speakers created the special ad hoc committee last summer to look at what happened and what should be done going forward. A number of lawmakers on the panel spent most of their time criticizing the federal government and voicing concerns about border policies.

This year, Rep. Dan Howell, R-Georgetown, and Sen. Dawn White, R-Murfreesboro, introduced and eventually passed legislation associated with the panel's effort.

It creates a new "nontraditional child care agency" category that applies to a child care agency that provides residential child care for one or more children that must be transported across state lines to enter or leave the agency's care and whose transport across state lines is not subject to the Interstate Compact on Juveniles or the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children.

The facilities are to be inspected twice a year by the state or its designees without providing advance notice. And the new law requires the agencies to include in an annual report to the department the number of children in its care during the license period, the number of children adopted or transferred elsewhere, and the state and county where the children were adopted or transferred.

Other provisions require nontraditional child care agencies to prepare within a 72-hour period a file containing "minimal identification requirements" for the child.

The list must contain the child's name, sex, height and weight, "verifable" identifiers, fingerprint sample, dental record or copy of a birth certificate and immunization record. Other provisions require information on average length of stay of the children with the agency and the amount in grants and public funds received by the agency from federal, state and local governments.

In presenting the bill to the House, Howell noted that "while Tennessee has no standing with regard to immigration, the law does agree on the role of safety of kids."

It passed 91-0 with no debate.

White said on the Senate floor that the legislation largely aims at transparency.

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, an attorney, questioned why the legislation was needed.

"What's the purpose of creating an entirely new category rather than trying to adhere to some of the regulatory scheme that already exists for organizations providing care?" Yarbro asked.

White accused the federal government of keeping information from the state about who was being brought in and how many children were being served.

"We actually do have a regulatory set of rules that apply to child care," Yarbro said. "Lots of those have transparency requirements, and I'm not entirely sure why are we creating an entirely new regulatory framework."

"This is just to make sure that these children are being taken care of," White responded, "who these children are, how long they're going to be in the state for education purposes and just to know where these children are being transferred after they leave these facilities."

Child welfare

The shelter was in the legislative district represented by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga.

Gardenhire said in a Sunday phone interview with the Times Free Press that there were failures at several levels.

"DCS licensed them to start with and received a complaint but did nothing about it," Gardenhire said, going on to also cite the Baptiste Group, which he said failed to supervise employees.

Gardenhire, who served on the ad hoc panel, said he tried to focus on the interests and welfare of the children.

"I attended every court hearing in Davidson County," Gardenhire said. "I feel sorry for the children, but the main problem we have right now is there are two active cases going on against two employees who are accused — the key word is accused — of improper relations with two of the boys."

Gardenhire praised Chattanooga Police Department investigators for their work.

Gardenhire said he also was concerned about Department of Children's Services officials moving to shut down the facility given that it resulted in the settlement allowing the Baptiste Group to reapply for a license to operate.

"And people wonder why I was upset, when you shut down a business that hired almost 100 people," Gardenhire said. "And obviously DCS didn't think they did anything wrong or they wouldn't have reached this settlement that would allow them to open up another facility and get licensed."

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

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