Tennessee and the Baptiste group end legal battle over Chattanooga migrant center

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

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

The dismissal came after a joint stipulation request submitted by Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery, attorneys for the state Department of Children’s Services and the contractor asking the Chancellor to dismiss the case. .

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

The settlement agreement provides that the Baptiste Group may reapply for an operating license.

It is unclear whether the Baptiste Group would benefit from doing so in light of the 14-month tumult over its operations following an initial report and video broadcast by the Chattanooga Local 3 News television station in May 2021.

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Settlement Agreement

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

One of the destinations was La Casa de Sidney, the Baptist shelter in a former Temple University dormitory in Chattanooga, a shelter licensed by Governor Bill Lee’s administration — a license that had been renewed and expanded by the administration. three months before the release of the video.

Outraged conservatives in Tennessee and elsewhere have used the report to attack President Joe Biden’s border policies and accuse the administration of child trafficking.

U.S. Representative Chuck Fleischmann, a Republican from Ooltewah, raised his concerns directly with U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra during a legislative hearing and afterwards.

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

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

Three workers were arrested and still face charges related to allegations of child abuse.

Tennessee lawmakers established an ad hoc state legislative committee, which held a series of hearings in which some members of the GOP, who hold supermajorities in both houses of the General Assembly and the on the committee, expressed concerns about the Biden administration’s border policies.

The settlement states that the state cannot use the suspension and revocation of the Baptist Group’s license in Chattanooga – or the reasons that led to the state’s actions – as a basis for preventing the Baptist Group from researching or obtain a license in the future.

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.

Accused workers

State inspectors were made aware of possible child abuse during an inspection of the facility on June 3, 2021. During this unannounced visit, a child staying at the shelter told an inspector that he had seen a staff member kiss a migrant child.

Chattanooga police investigated and a police affidavit said there were “other anonymous reports” of a staff member kissing a child in the showers.

Among the workers charged was Florencia Morales in a case alleging sexual assault by an authority figure. Then 22, Morales was committed to the grand jury last year on charges related to kissing a 17-year-old who was living at the shelter at the time. Last September, a second sexual assault charge was brought against her after law enforcement identified a second underage potential victim.

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

The Chattanooga Times Free Press also reported in March 2022 that Rebeka Perez was facing a count of alleged sexual contact by an authority figure. His case was returned to court.

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

Statehouse hearings

The presidents of the Tennessee House and Senate created the special ad hoc committee last summer to examine what happened and what should be done in the future. 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 ultimately passed legislation associated with the panel’s efforts.

It creates a new category “non-traditional child care agency” which applies to a child care agency that provides residential child care services to one or more children who need to be transported across state lines to enter or leave the custody of the agency and whose transportation across state lines is not subject to the Interstate Compact on Juveniles or the Interstate Compact on the Placement ofChildren.

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

Other provisions oblige non-traditional child care agencies to prepare within 72 hours a file containing the “minimum identification requirements” of the child.

The list must contain the child’s name, gender, height and weight, “verifiable” identifiers, a sample of fingerprints, dental records, or a copy of a birth certificate and records vaccination. Other provisions require information about the average length of stay of children with the agency and the amount of grants and public funds received by the agency from federal, state, and local governments.

In introducing the bill to the House, Howell noted that “although Tennessee has no immigration status, the law agrees on the role of child safety.”

It went 91-0 without debate.

White told the Senate that the legislation is largely about transparency.

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

“What’s the point of creating an entirely new category rather than trying to adhere to part of the regulatory regime that already exists for organizations providing care?” Yarbro asked.

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

“We actually have a set of regulatory rules that apply to child care,” Yarbro said. “A lot of them have transparency requirements, and I’m not sure why we’re creating an entirely new regulatory framework.”

“It’s just to make sure these kids are taken care of,” White replied, “who these kids are, how long they’re going to be in the state for education purposes and just to know where these kids are. children are transferred after leaving these facilities.”

Child protection

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

Gardenhire said in a telephone interview with the Times Free Press on Sunday that there had been failures on many levels.

“DCS gave them a license to start with and received a complaint but did nothing about it,” Gardenhire said, also citing the Baptiste Group, which it said failed to oversee the employees.

Gardenhire, who sat on the ad hoc panel, said he was trying to focus on the interests and welfare of children.

“I attended all of the Davidson County Court hearings,” Gardenhire said. “I’m sorry for the kids, but the main issue we have right now is that there are two ongoing cases against two employees who are accused – the key word is accused – of inappropriate relationships with two of the boys.”

Gardenhire praised Chattanooga Police Department investigators for their work.

Gardenhire said he was also concerned about the decision by Department of Children’s Services officials to close the facility, as 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 closed a company that was hiring almost 100 people,” Gardenhire said. “And obviously DCS didn’t think they did anything wrong or they wouldn’t have made this settlement that would allow them to open another facility and get a license.”

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

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