Tennessee dismissed child abuse allegation, did not interview children at Chattanooga shelter a month before employees there were arrested

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

The state, which has the "right, and more importantly the statutory responsibility, to ensure the safety of children," also did not interview other children who could have been victims of abuse despite a request from the shelter director to do so before children were moved from the facility and placed across the country, according to court documents released Thursday.

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

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

"As stated in the order, the series of issues that preceded the suspension of the license started on June 3. DCS was not made aware of any allegations of abuse prior to June 3," Jennifer Donnals, chief of staff at the Department of Children's Services, told the Times Free Press in a July 2 email.

On Wednesday, an administrative judge upheld the suspension. The judge's decision and summary of the hearing, released Thursday, provides more information about the state's involvement with investigations of possible abuse at the Chattanooga shelter since the state closed the hearing from the public over confidentiality concerns.

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

The state "determined that the language in the report did not meet its policies or criteria for further investigation" and did not take further action, according to the court ruling.

The Department of Children's Services said state law prohibits it from commenting on why the department did not investigate the complaint.

According to state policy, Child Protective 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 perpetrator, such as the alleged perpetrator being in a caregiving role. The state's definition of child sexual abuse does not explicitly list "kissing" as an act of sexual abuse, as it does for the intentional contact with other parts of the body.

Allegations that do not meet the criteria for a Child Protective Services investigation are reported to law enforcement, according to 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 to the department working alongside the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security. Their investigation charged Duarte on June 29 with sexual battery by an authority figure, coercion of a witness and tampering with evidence.

On June 3, the state conducted an unannounced site visit, which led to the report of a staff member allegedly kissing a child. The person who is alleged to have kissed the child is identified only as "the Facility staff member" in the order and is not named. The allegation against the staff member involved a separate child than the allegation involving Duarte, according to the order.

The state inspectors reported the allegation involving the unnamed staff member to the state's abuse hotline. Jennifer Nichols, commissioner of the Department of Children's Services, announced this June 3 allegation on June 16 in front of state lawmakers.

State inspectors with the department found no other issues with the shelter during the June 3 visit and wrote in their summary that the "physical inspection had yielded no findings or need for corrective action."

According to the order released Thursday, the state did not recommend any corrective measures for the Baptiste Group in light of the two allegations, though the Baptiste Group implemented increased safety measures and protections against possible abuse, such as restricting unsupervised room checks to less than five seconds and the hiring of a staff manager to oversee ongoing staff training.

Around this time, according to the order, Duarte was suspended for the second time and the unnamed staff member was suspended and later fired. Neither Duarte nor the unnamed staff member had criminal histories, and both passed background checks, according to a review by the state. A special investigator from the state, according to the order, said the facility's training on identifying sex abuse and other topics was "extensive."

With the second abuse allegation, the state's investigator revisited the May 20 complaint against Duarte the state previously had dismissed. On June 8, the state investigator interviewed the alleged victim and the child's uncle. Nearly 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 Chattanooga police and the Department of Homeland Security but the police department "has not shared a great deal of information with [DCS] due to the 'nature of the case,' 'media attention,' and the involvement of multiple other governmental agencies."

(READ MORE: Tennessee licensed migrant shelter in Chattanooga a year before outrage, national calls for transparency)

The judge's order also revealed the state did not conduct interviews with other children at the facility, who could have been victims of abuse, despite a request from the facility's director to do so.

The facility director told the state investigator that the Department of Children's Services "should quickly come to interview children at the facility due to the consistent nature of the children being discharged" to be placed with sponsors, according to the judge's summary. Federal policy dictates shelters such as the one in Chattanooga temporarily house migrant children for around 30 days until a vetted sponsor, typically a relative, can be found.

By June 22, all the children at the facility had been placed with sponsors or moved to a different shelter.

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

During the July 13 meeting of the state's special committee on immigration, state lawmakers asked children's services officials whether they interviewed all children at the facility for potential abuse. Helen Rodgers, assistant general counsel for the Department of Children's Services, told the committee the department is only "legally obligated to say" an investigation was conducted and that more information could be provided outside the public hearing.

The information contained in the judge's order contradicts some accusations by state lawmakers that the federal government or leaders of the facility purposefully moved children from the facility in late June to impede a state investigation.

"It's certainly frustrating to me as a citizen that believes in justice that apparently a federal agency can just snatch up a victim and potential witnesses from a serious investigation and they just disappear overnight," said Rep. Chris Todd, R-Madison County, during the July 13 hearing of the state's special committee. "It smells of a coverup, quite frankly."

(READ MORE: 'Do not say anything': More information revealed about possible child abuse at Chattanooga migrant shelter)

The state may have more information about potential abuse or actions by the state or facility staff. However, such information was not included in the judge's summary of the hearing because the state did not include such information or allegations in the original order suspending the Baptiste Group's child care license. Attorneys for the Baptiste Group argued the state could not present such information during the July 6 hearing because the state's order only included allegations related to two facility employees.

The state's special investigator, who testified at the July 6 hearing, said the state did not consult her when it drafted its order to suspend the Baptiste Group's license.

An attorney representing the Baptiste Group did not respond to a request for comment Friday about the future of the organization.

Redemption to the Nations Church, which leased an unused building to the Baptiste Group to operate the shelter, said in a statement Thursday the church will continue cooperating with any investigations into the facility.

"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 connection with the lease agreement based on allegations. We have been advised that we must let the governmental agencies do their job and wait for a legal resolution of these allegations."

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