Tennessee rejected allegations of child abuse and did not interview children at the Chattanooga shelter a month before workers were arrested

The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services declined to investigate a child abuse complaint against a worker at the Chattanooga shelter housing unaccompanied minors in May, weeks before the state acknowledged the alleged abuse in the facility and a month before Chattanooga police charged this employee with sexual violence.

The state, which has “the right, and above all the legal responsibility, to ensure the safety of children”, has also not interviewed other children who may have been victims of abuse despite a request from the director of the shelter to do so before the children are moved from the facility and placed across the country, according to court documents released Thursday.

The disclosure of state knowledge of possible abuse at the facility in May contradicts previous statements by the department, which said the first case of potential abuse was reported during an unannounced inspection of the site on 3 June.

On July 1, the state suspended the residential child care license of the Baptiste Group, which operated the Chattanooga shelter.

“As stated in the order, the series of issues leading up to the license suspension began on June 3. DCS was not made aware of any allegations of abuse until June 3,” said Jennifer Donnals. , Chief of Staff of the Children’s Department. Services, the Times Free Press said in a July 2 email.

On Wednesday, an administrative judge confirmed the suspension. The judge’s decision and summary of the hearing, released Thursday, provide more information on the state’s involvement in investigations into possible abuses at the Chattanooga shelter since the state closed the hearing to the public for reasons of confidentiality.

On May 20, the Baptiste Group filed a report on an allegation of abuse by Randi Duarte, a 35-year-old staff member, kissing a 17-year-old resident. Details of this complaint were reported to the Children’s Services Department through the state’s abuse hotline.

The state “determined that the language of the report did not meet its policies or criteria for a full investigation” and took no further action, according to the court ruling.

The Ministry of Children’s Services said state law prohibits it from commenting on the ministry’s reasons for not investigating the complaint.

In accordance with state policy, child protection services does not get involved if the complaint does not meet specific criteria, including an allegation of harm, identification of an alleged victim, and a distinct relationship between the alleged victim and the perpetrator, such as the alleged perpetrator taking on a caregiver role. The states definition of child sexual abuse does not explicitly mention “kissing” as an act of sexual abuse, as it does for intentional contact with other parts of the body.

Allegations that do not meet the criteria for a child protection service investigation are reported to law enforcement, in accordance with state policy.

A two-week internal investigation by the Baptiste Group could not substantiate the allegations and Duarte, who had been on leave after the initial complaint, was allowed to return to work, according to the order.

The same allegation was reported to the Chattanooga Police Department in May and led the department to work alongside the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security. Their investigation charged Duarte on June 29 with sexual assault by an authority figure, coercing a witness and tampering with evidence.

On June 3, the state made an unannounced visit to the site, which led to a report of a staff member allegedly kissing a child. The person who allegedly kissed the child is only identified as “the staff member of the facility” in the order and is not named. The allegation against the staff member involved a different child than the allegation regarding Duarte, according to the order.

State inspectors reported the allegation involving the anonymous staff member to the state’s abuse hotline. Jennifer Nichols, commissioner of the Department of Children’s Services, announced the June 3 allegation on June 16 before state lawmakers.

State inspectors from the department found no other problems with the shelter during the June 3 visit and wrote in their summary that “the physical inspection did not provide any findings or need for corrective action.”

According to the order released Thursday, the state has not recommended any corrective action for the Baptiste group in light of the two allegations, although the Baptiste group has put in place increased security measures and protections against possible abuse. , such as restricting unattended room checks to less than five seconds and hiring a staff manager to oversee ongoing staff training.

At that time, according to the order, Duarte was suspended for the second time and the anonymous staff member was suspended and then fired. Neither Duarte nor the anonymous staff member had a criminal history, and both passed the background check, according to a state exam. A state special investigator, according to the ordinance, said the facility’s training on identifying sexual abuse and other matters was “scalable.”

With the second allegation of abuse, the state investigator reconsidered the May 20 complaint against Duarte that the state had previously dismissed. On June 8, the state investigator interviewed the alleged victim and the child’s uncle. Almost two weeks later, law enforcement investigators interviewed the same two people, which led to Duarte’s arrest on June 29.

According to the order, the state investigator met with the Chattanooga police and the Department of Homeland Security, but the police department “did not share much information with. [DCS] due to the “nature of the matter”, “media attention” and the involvement of several other government agencies. “

(READ MORE: Approved migrant shelter from Tennessee to Chattanooga a year before outrage, national calls for transparency)

The judge’s order also revealed that the state had not conducted interviews with other children at the facility, who may have been abused, despite a request from the facility director to le make.

The facility director told the state investigator that the Department of Children’s Services “should promptly come to interview the children at the facility due to the consistent nature of the children being returned” to be placed with sponsors, according to the judge’s summary. Federal policy dictates that shelters such as the one in Chattanooga temporarily house migrant children for about 30 days until an approved sponsor, usually a parent, can be found.

By June 22, all the children at the facility had been placed with sponsors or transferred to another shelter.

The department declined to answer a question about why it had not interviewed other children at the facility.

At the July 13 meeting of the state’s special committee on immigration, state lawmakers asked children’s services officials if they had interrogated all of the facility’s children for abuse. potentials. Helen Rodgers, deputy general counsel for the Department of Children’s Services, told the committee that the department was “under a legal obligation to say” that an investigation had been carried out and that more information could be provided outside of the public hearing.

The information in the judge’s order contradicts some accusations by state lawmakers that the federal government or facility officials deliberately moved children from the facility in late June to prevent a state investigation.

“It is certainly frustrating for me as a citizen who believes in justice that apparently a federal agency can simply snatch a victim and potential witnesses from a serious investigation and they disappear overnight,” said the representing Chris Todd of R-Madison County during the July 13 state special committee hearing. “It smacks of cover-up, quite frankly. “

(READ MORE: ‘Say nothing’: more information revealed about possible child abuse at Chattanooga migrant shelter)

The state may have more information about potential abuse or the actions of the state or facility staff. However, this information was not included in the judge’s hearing summary because the state did not include this information or allegations in the initial order suspending the Baptist Group childcare license. Lawyers for the Baptiste Group argued that the state could not present such information during the July 6 hearing because the state order only included allegations relating to two employees of the establishment.

The state’s special investigator, who testified at the July 6 hearing, said the state did not consult with her when drafting its order to suspend the Baptist Group license.

A lawyer representing the Baptiste Group did not respond to a request for comment on the future of the organization on Friday.

Buyout from the Church of Nations, which rented an unused building to the Baptist Group for the operation of the refuge, said in a statement on Thursday the church will continue to cooperate with any investigation into the facility.

“The Redemption To The Nations Church is committed and dedicated to protecting the most vulnerable, including all children,” the church said in its statement. “Legally, the church cannot take action in relation to the tenancy agreement based on allegations. We have been advised that we must let government agencies do their job and wait for a legal resolution of these allegations.”

Contact Wyatt Massey at [email protected] or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @ news4mass.

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