Tennessee legislators will draft legislation to increase transparency and establish protective measures for the sponsorship of unaccompanied migrant children. The federal government says that sponsors are “almost always a parent or close relative” – but that’s not always the case. Lawmakers’ urgency to increase transparency and establish protective measures for sponsorship heightened after it was revealed that Governor Bill Lee’s administration has continued licensing for a Chattanooga shelter without apparent provisions in place to protect the housed migrant children from traffickers and cartels.
The Chattanooga shelter is run by the Baptiste Group, a Georgia-based national group that provides emergency shelter services for unaccompanied migrant children – usually for up to 30 days, excepting complications. Last May, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Administration for Children and Families contracted with the Baptiste Group for a conditional Residential Child Care Agency License in Chattanooga. The three-year contract, set to expire last August, anticipated nearly $7.5 million in costs to house up to 100 children.
In August, the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (TDS) Division of Licensing granted the Baptiste Group an extension of licensure from November 29 to February 27. Current TDS data indicates that there are nearly 70 children at the Chattanooga shelter.
State Representative Robin Smith (R-Hixson) shared these documents with The Tennessee Star. In an interview, Smith explained that she was concerned about the lack of transparency around the programs and sponsors that receive the migrant children. She asserted that the state needs to establish more thorough protocols for these facilities.
“We need to make sure the state hasn’t unintentionally set up some sort of construct that sets up or assists human trafficking,” stated Smith.
The state representative explained further that the migrant children at these facilities fall within a very specific age group – one appealing to nefarious actors.
“If these are 12 to 17-year-olds, clearly they’re not small children. It stands to reason that these are children that fall into the age group, unfortunately, [as] victims of human or sex trafficking. While we want to conjure up images of small children in their mother’s arms being taken, in reality these are 12 to 17-year-olds,” explained Smith. “My personal concern is [that if] there is a facility licensed by the state of Tennessee to house these individuals, [then] we need to have absolute certainty that we have some kind of public documentation made available showing who the sponsors are, and to ensure that we’re not indirectly aiding the coyotes and whomever it is that bring these children here under the premise they’re seeking asylum as a family unit.”
Smith said that bad actors all too often exploit charitable groups. She added that the $7.5 million in taxpayer dollars demands due diligence, especially when there are needs closer to home: Tennessee’s children, homeless, and mentally ill.
“It’s very unfortunate that this type of generosity and hospitality awarded through religion is abused and can unfortunately provide a construct that is veiled from the need of transparency in this case,” explained Smith.
State Representative John Ragan (R-Oak Ridge), chairman of the Joint Government Operations Committee, submitted a letter to state officials requesting information concerning the safety of migrant children in the state.
In part, Ragan questioned whether the children were vaccinated, vetted for human trafficking, and being properly educated in these facilities.
Read Ragan’s letter below:
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