Officials in the Tennessee Department of Children's Services say local law enforcement, the FBI and other federal authorities have been alerted after an unaccompanied migrant child this month reported being abused at a Chattanooga shelter.
News of the alleged child abuse became public during a legislative committee hearing Wednesday. The meeting pivoted to a discussion of unaccompanied minors being brought to Tennessee by the federal government, a practice that has taken place for years but only began to face scrutiny in recent weeks.
During a routine, unannounced inspection of the shelter by DCS, a boy "disclosed that he had witnessed an act that, in our policy, would substantiate and require an investigation into that act (taking) place,” said Jennifer Nichols, the department's commissioner.
The shelter is operated by the Baptiste Group, which has a federal contract with the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to temporarily house migrant youth waiting to be connected with sponsors.
At the time of the inspection, which occurred two weeks ago, Nichols said, 62 children ages 12-17 were staying at the shelter. The vast majority of the children who have been housed there are boys, according to state officials.
Mark Anderson, DCS's director of licensing, visited the facility along with another staff member and an interpreter. The state employees randomly selected six children to interview as part of their inspection of the shelter, which has a child residential facility license through DCS.
Officials have not elaborated on the nature of the abuse allegation, though Anderson noted state licensing rules for such a shelter require facility staff to be trained in sexual abuse prevention and reporting.
Upon leaving the facility, Anderson immediately called the DCS child abuse hotline. Nichols said local law enforcement and prosecutors were notified and began an investigation the next day.
The FBI, U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the inspector general of the Office of Refugee Resettlement have also been made aware and are "working in collaboration with local law enforcement and our department," Nichols said.
DCS says alleged abuse occurred at shelter, not prior to child's arrival
A point of confusion among legislators appeared to be when and where the alleged abuse took place.
Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, who said afterward he heard about the allegation through undisclosed sources prior to the Wednesday hearing, believed that the abuse had occurred prior to the child's arrival at the Chattanooga facility.
Despite first hearing about the reported abuse through other means, Ragan said the information provided by Nichols and Anderson on Wednesday was "the first official acknowledgement" he received about the alleged abuse.
Asked to clarify whether the alleged abuse occurred at the Chattanooga shelter or elsewhere prior to the child's arrival, DCS chief of staff Jennifer Donnals said in a statement Wednesday that while the investigation is still being conducted, "the allegation apparently occurred at the facility."
Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, also said he was under the impression the alleged abuse took place prior to the child's arrival. Multiple legislators who were involved in the joint government operations committee — meaning it included both House and Senate members — suggested the children had been victims of human trafficking.
"We're facilitating international sex trafficking, could be, but certainly trafficking of children," said Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, who chaired the meeting. They have not cited evidence that the children arriving in Chattanooga have been trafficked.
House member presses DCS on whether other abuse reports exist
Cepicky pressed DCS officials on why all the children at the shelter weren't interviewed after one child reported abuse.
Anderson said DCS has been in the process of conducting additional interviews since the report was made, but believed it as an "isolated incident."
Posters in English and Spanish are placed around the facility with the phone number for a child abuse hotline, and one of the phones at the shelter is solely dedicated to that hotline, Anderson also explained.
"So out of all the stuff you just listed in this facility to report this abuse, it never happened until you took the time to sit down with this individual and ask them questions and it was disclosed to you," Cepicky said.
"How do we know there's not 40 or 50 kids over there who have abuse? How do we know, because obviously the posters on the walls, the telephones, all of this stuff is not working because it took you to sit down, and I'm glad you did, but you only interviewed six out of 62."
Nichols said that as of Tuesday, there were 41 children staying at the facility, which is licensed to house up to 100.
A select group of legislators from both chambers will return for a meeting Friday to discuss similar issues. The "Joint Study Committee on Refugee Issues" was formed by the House and Senate speakers recently to discuss and find information about reports of unaccompanied minors arriving in the state.
The Chattanooga shelter was not on the agenda for the hearing Wednesday, when DCS was scheduled to speak about the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children. The ICPC outlines a series of steps that must take place for a child to legally be transported from one state to another for fostering or adoption.