Tennessee suspends shelter license following staffer arrest

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP):- Tennessee officials on Thursday suspended the license of a Chattanooga shelter for immigrant children after one of the employees was arrested following abuse allegations.

The move comes as Tennessee’s top Republican leaders have called for more scrutiny surrounding the shelter. They allege the federal government has not been transparent when pressed about immigrant children moving through the state.

That rhetoric only intensified after Department of Children’s Services Commissioner Jennifer Nichols told lawmakers that in early June during an unannounced inspection of a Chattanooga shelter, a young boy reported he had witnessed “an act that, in our policy, would substantiate and require an investigation” while at the facility.

In a news release, Nichols on Thursday cited the abuse allegation and other issues that had plagued the shelter over the past month as reasons for the suspension.

According to the suspension summary, the department was alerted on June 15 that a 16-year-old boy had “absconded” from the shelter. A week later, the department was told all the youth had been moved from the facility. On Wednesday, the Chattanooga Police Department announced that a staff member had been arrested and faced criminal charges.

Police officials say 35-year-old Randi Duarte faces charges of sexual battery by an authority figure, coercion of a witness and tampering with evidence. Police received a complaint in late May and worked with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Homeland Security and the Hamilton County District Attorney’s office to investigate the allegation.

Police did not provide any additional information about the abuse claim. It’s unknown if the arrest is related to the abuse allegation cited by Nichols in June. The department says one of the youths housed at the shelter said he had witnessed a staff member kissing another youth.

The shelter is run by the Baptiste Group, which began operating last year under then-President Donald Trump’s administration after receiving a conditional license by the department. The shelter has a federal contract with the Office of Refugee Resettlement to temporarily house unaccompanied migrant minors.

Baptiste Group did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment. It was not clear whether Duarte has an attorney who could comment on his behalf.

Unaccompanied children who are taken into custody by Customs and Border Protection are transferred to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, which shelters them until they are placed with sponsors, usually a relative.

Meanwhile, a group of Republican state lawmakers have been tasked by Senate Speaker Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton to investigate refugee and immigration settlement in Tennessee. The group was formed after a local television station aired footage of children arriving at a Chattanooga airport and boarding buses in the middle of the night.

Lawmakers had demanded representatives from Baptiste Group testify and answer questions about their operation at their next July 13 meeting.

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