Tennessee immigrant youth shelter sues state over suspension


NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A group that runs a Tennessee shelter for unaccompanied immigrant youth has sued the state over its decision to suspend the facility’s license after an employee was arrested following abuse allegations.

Baptiste Group filed the lawsuit Tuesday in Davidson County Chancery Court, claiming the state violated due process protections while also being improperly motivated by “bias, racial prejudice and the like” in respect to the migrant children housed at the facility.

Earlier this month, the Department of Children’s Services suspended the nonprofit’s license following allegations that child abuse had occurred and a teenage boy had run away from the facility. The suspension came amid outrage among some Republicans who have argued that the federal government has not been transparent when pressed about immigrant children moving through the state.

The 28-page lawsuit states that the state’s action “demonstrates bias and prejudice towards TBG” because the state has not taken similar actions for other agencies facing similar accusations.

A spokesperson for the Department of Children’s Services did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

Baptiste Group has been operating as a shelter since last year 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.

However, scrutiny over the facility has intensified after Commissioner Jennifer Nichols spoke with lawmakers about an unannounced inspection of a Chattanooga shelter in earlier June. At the time, she said, a young boy reported he had witnessed an act that would require investigation.

According to the lawsuit, the facility learned in late May that a minor reportedly accused an employee of kissing a separate minor. The incident was investigated, which involved reporting it to the Office for Refugee Resettlement, the FBI, local police and the Department of Child Protective Services. Ultimately, CPS determined the situation did not meet the definition of abuse or neglect and the employee returned to work.

Later, the lawsuit claims that when the Department of Children’s Services dropped by the facility for a routine unannounced inspection, state officials interviewed a handful of children and were told of another incident of a staff member kissing a minor. The staffer had since left the shelter.

The lawsuit said the facility took the same steps to report the new allegation to the authorities, all while arguing that the state officials were complimentary of the facility’s record keeping and did not recommend any “corrective measures.”

However, earlier this month, the state suspended Baptiste Group’s license just hours after Chattanooga police arrested the female former staffer accused of kissing a minor connected to the May allegation on charges of sexual battery by an authority figure, coercion of a witness and tampering with evidence.

The department cited the abuse allegation and other issues that had plagued the shelter over the past month as reasons for the suspension.

An administrative judge upheld the suspension in a closed hearing earlier this month.

Baptiste Group alleges that the judge was wrong to uphold the suspension and has asked the court to overturn the ruling.

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