Chattanooga center for immigrant children sues state over license suspension

By: - July 20, 2021 8:12 pm
State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, center, has expressed suspicion about the suspension of the Baptiste Group. (Photo: John Partipilo)

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, center, has expressed suspicion about the suspension of the Baptiste Group. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The Chattanooga organization that runs a short-term center for immigrant children sued the state Tuesday, seeking to have its license reinstated, after the Department of Children’s Services suspended it over allegations of sexual misconduct.

Baptiste Group, which runs La Casa de Sidney, and holds a contract with the federal government to accept immigrant children until they can be connected with family, friends or sponsors, filed the lawsuit Tuesday in Davidson County Chancery Court against the Department of Children’s Services and Commissioner Jennifer Nichols.

Jennifer Nichols, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Children's Services. (Photo: tn.gov)
Jennifer Nichols, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services. (Photo: tn.gov)

The group contends the state suspended its license without due process, even after it fired two employees who allegedly kissed unaccompanied minors there, according to the filing. It also claims the state knew about the steps it took to protect children but doled out the punishment anyway, weeks after the alleged incidents were reported. In addition to asking that its license be reinstated, the lawsuit seeks expenses and attorney’s fees.

“While in no way condoning the actions of those terminated former employees or discounting the egregiousness of the allegations, the immediate suspension of (The Baptiste Group’s) operations based on those allegations while not doing the same for other agencies with similar incidents demonstrates bias and prejudice towards (The Baptiste Group,)” the filing states.

It further contends the suspension was “motivated by bias, racial prejudice and the like with respect to the migrant children” housed at La Casa de Sidney.

The Department of Children’s Services has received copies of the lawsuit and related filings Wednesday and is reviewing. Spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals had no comment.

The filing was made after an administrative law judge upheld the state’s suspension in a closed hearing two weeks ago. The lawsuit, filed by Baker Donelson, contends a ruling can be overturned “if a reasonable person would necessarily draw a different conclusion from the record.” 

It also notes the judge’s decision was “unsupported by evidence that was substantial and material in light of the entire record.” The lawsuit further points out a court reporter was not available at the hearing.

Nichols ordered suspension of Baptiste Group’s license with the state to run a facility for unaccompanied minors and refugee children after an unannounced inspection in early June. During the visit, one of six children interviewed told a state inspector he had seen one of the La Casa de Sidney staff members kissing one of the other immigrant teens staying there.

According to a state inspection report, the teen was no longer at the center when inspectors visited. The Baptiste Group fired the staff member shortly after the inspection, according to the state report.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, has said consistently Tennessee’s focus should be on the welfare of the children once they are brought to Tennessee. He is highly skeptical about the state suspension of the license.

If the facts in the lawsuit are proven in court, he said, a state committee studying refugee issues in Tennessee is “on the wrong track” amid a highly politicized atmosphere, he said. The panel is looking into the costs of immigrant children to Tennessee.

The Department of Children’s Services also needs to “disprove” the facts set forth in the lawsuit “in order to have credibility,” Gardenhire said.

If these facts (in the suit) are true, and it's easy to prove whether they're true or not true, then I think this administrative law judge and the Department of Children's Services have some answering to do.

– Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, says legislators studying refugee issues could be on the wrong track.

Gardenhire disputed facts surrounding the arrival of children in Tennessee from the outset when he said they first came to Tennessee in October, disagreeing with a legislative committee attorney who said they arrived in November.

“If these facts are true, and it’s easy to prove whether they’re true or not true, then I think this administrative law judge and the Department of Children’s Services have some answering to do,” Gardenhire said. 

Uproar over the immigrant teens started after a Chattanooga TV station ran cell-phone video of the children unloading from an airplane at the airport in the dark of night. 

Republican lawmakers immediately demanded more accountability and accused President Joe Biden’s administration of trying to sneak children into the state, even though they stay at the center temporarily and might not be sponsored by a Tennessee family.

Chattanooga Police filed criminal charges against the now-former Baptiste Group staff member who allegedly had improper contact with the immigrant teen.

In its filing, Baptiste Group says it follows federal standards to prevent, detect and respond to sexual abuse and sexual harassment and “enforced and abided” by those standards at La Casa de Sidney.

The Baptiste Group held a conditional license for La Casa de Sidney from Aug. 29, 2020 to Nov. 28, 2020, then from Nov. 29, 2020 to Feb. 28, 2021 before it received full approval on Feb. 28, 2021. Since Oct. 29, 2020, it has served 211 unaccompanied minors there with an average length of stay of 36 days, according to the filing.

Under state law, the group is required to put employees through orientation and instructional programs dealing with child sexual abuse prevention, including an orientation program and 40 hours of training for new hires on the boundaries that must be kept between staff and children. It contends the state granted its full license, in part, because of those efforts.

According to the filing, the facility learned May 20 that a minor reportedly alleged to a clinician that he had seen one of the center’s employees, Randi Duarte, kissing a 17-year-old minor housed at the facility.

Duarte and the teen denied the allegations, and the minor who identified as witnessing it also denied seeing it, according to the filing. The facility suspended Duarte pending an internal investigation and reported the situation to the Office for Refugee Resettlement, the Office of Inspector General of Health and Human Services and the FBI, as well as the Department of Child Protective Services on May 20. In addition, it filed an incident report with Chattanooga Police, according to the lawsuit.

Child Protective Services determined the situation “did not arise to the definition of abuse or neglect” under state law and didn’t open an investigation.

In its filing, Baptiste Group says it follows federal standards to prevent, detect and respond to sexual abuse and sexual harassment and “enforced and abided” by those standards at La Casa de Sidney.

After weeks of internal investigation and unable to substantiate the claim against Duarte, the facility allowed her to return to work.

On June 3, Mark Anderson, director of Department of Children’s Services licensing and DCS staff member Becky Ervin visited the facility for a routine unannounced inspection and reviewed seven personnel files and six resident files, interviewing the six children.

During that visit, one of the minor children told the inspectors about seeing a facility staff member kiss another minor who had since left the program. They notified the facility director about the allegation, according to the filing.

The director told them a report had been filed already on Duarte and that the incident had been “screened out” by the department. The inspectors, though, informed him that the child who allegedly witnessed the kissing had made the allegation about a different staff member. That staff member was later fired.

During a subsequent internal investigation, the facility found out Duarte continued to contact the discharged minor after he had reunified with his family and left the facility, which is a violation of the Baptiste Group’s code of conduct. The group then fired Duarte.

But because the teen had turned 18, the facility couldn’t report the new allegations to DCS, though it reported the new claims against Duarte to federal authorities.

Chattanooga Police visited the facility June 7, when staff told them about the allegations and provided information, according to the filing.

On June 15, La Casa de Sidney informed DCS a minor had escaped from the facility. The teen was considered a high risk to abscond, according to the filing.

The next day, Anderson testified before the Legislature’s Joint Study Committee on Refugee Issues that the allegation made during his unannounced visit was an “isolated incident.” He also pointed out the facility had posters inside the center with a phone number of a child abuse hotline.

Despite the allegations surrounding Duarte and another staff member, as well as information about the absconded minor, Anderson and Jennifer Williams, a DCS assistant commissioner, signed a licensure notice of compliance review stating, “Corrective Action Not Required,” the filing says.

“Indeed, the Department never showed any concern with TBG’s operations and, therefore, never engaged TBG in any conversation on changes that TBG needed to make nor made any suggestions on what TBG should be doing,” the lawsuit states.

Still, the facility started taking corrective action, including increased training to avert improper behavior with minors. In early June the Office of Refugee Resettlement and Baptiste Group agreed the facility would stop accepting new minors into the program and relocate those who had not been placed with sponsors or family members. Thus, 18 were moved to different facilities.

The facility was set to start taking unaccompanied minors on July 6, but the state suspended its license July 1, sending a two-page order saying, “the health, safety or welfare of the children in the care of the facility imperatively requires such emergency action,” according to the filing.

 

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.

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