Tennessee State Capitol (Photograph: John Partipilo)
Allegations of sexual abuse at a Baptiste Group home for migrant children gave the state an excuse to suspend the facility’s license as political pressure mounted, a Chattanooga Democrat says.
“That’s my perspective,” state Rep. Yusuf Hakeem said Tuesday. “And what concerns me is that supposedly the state would have been doing on-site reviews every month. But just when this sort of blew up with dealing with the border and children and all of that, that’s when … all of this sort of comes out. I know things don’t necessarily have to be fabricated, but the timing of it is very suspect to me.”
Department of Children’s Services Commissioner Jennifer Nichols announced last week the department suspended the license of Baptiste Group to operate La Casa de Sydney in Chattanooga as a residential child care agency following allegations that a woman working there kissed a teenage migrant boy staying at the center.
What concerns me is that supposedly the state would have been doing on-site reviews every month. But just when this sort of blew up with dealing with the border and children and all that, that's when . . . all of this sort of comes out.
– Rep. Yusef Hakeem
All youths have been moved from La Casa de Sydney since June 22, one week after the teen who was allegedly abused ran away from the facility, according to the state. The teens were brought there by the federal government after being detained at the border.
In early June, a youth told state inspectors during an unannounced inspection he had seen a facility staff member kiss another youth, leading the state to refer the matter to a child abuse hotline and start an investigation.
Chattanooga Police charged staff member Randi Duarte on June 30 with sexual battery by an authority figure, coercion of a witness and tampering with evidence.
DCS found the facility showed an “inability” to hire people suitable and capable of taking care of children, leading to criminal charges and the potential for a youth to be subject to abuse or lack of adequate supervision.
The Baptiste Group, which has a federal contract to care for refugees and unaccompanied children, filed for reinstatement of its license and is to have a hearing before an administrative law judge.
Hakeem said Tuesday he is trying to figure out which entity is conducting the investigation into the Baptiste Group, the state Department of Children’s Services, the federal government or the committee on immigrant children, a Republican-only panel convened to look at the impact of the children on the state.
State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a Chattanooga Republican serving on the committee, said Tuesday he isn’t worried about the Baptiste Group losing its license.
“I just want these kids taken care of while they’re here in the United States. That’s been my only concern,” Gardenhire said.
He has advocated for separating frustrations about security at the Southern border, which he maintains is up to the federal government, from what to do with the children once they are brought to the United States. Gardenhire contends that once the children are in the custody of the United States and come to Tennessee, “we have a moral obligation” to care for them.
Yusuf and Gardenhire have characterized the state’s stand against taking in unaccompanied minors from south of the border as politically motivated. Gov. Bill Lee declined a request by the Biden Administration to accept the children.
As the study committee prepares to meet next week, Gardenhire predicted “a lot of political posturing” from committee members on the border situation.
I just want these kids taken care of while they're here in the United States. That's been my only concern.
– Chattanooga GOP Sen. Todd Gardenhire who predicts 'political posturing' by legislators
A spokeswoman for the Department of Children’s Services has said no other facility in the state is accepting unaccompanied minors from the Mexican border. Most of them are believed to be fleeing terrible living conditions in Central American countries such as Guatemala, although many Republicans are saying the children are becoming victims of human trafficking.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who formed the legislative study committee, both agree with the state’s decision to suspend Baptiste Group’s license because of the seriousness of the accusations.
“Our study committee will continue meeting to further examine this situation and its circumstances, as well as the broader issue because of the Biden Administration’s ongoing failures to provide critical information and transparency to both our elected officials and Tennessee taxpayers,” Sexton spokesman Doug Kufner said.
McNally said he was “grateful” that DCS suspended the license.
“The allegations of abuse there are disturbing and highlights the need for openness, transparency and oversight over the process of transporting unaccompanied migrants and refugees into our state,” McNally said.
He noted the state “remains resolved” in opposition to the Biden Administration’s change of immigration policies from the Trump Administration.
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