Federal and Tennessee authorities are investigating a report of child abuse at a facility in Chattanooga used to house unaccompanied minors who were picked up by Border Patrol agents along the U.S.-Mexico border, according to the head of the state’s Department of Children’s Services (DCS).
While providing scant details, Jennifer Nichols, the head of the agency, told Tennessee lawmakers during a hearing on Wednesday that a teenage boy at the facility told the Department of Children’s Services about the alleged abuse. The teen boy, who wasn’t identified, said he wasn’t the victim but had witnessed abuse, Nichols said during a hearing with the Government Operations Joint Subcommittee on Education, Health, and General Welfare.
Now, the FBI, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and state officials are investigating the matter, she added. Nichols didn’t disclose the nature of the allegations made by the teen.
Six children being housed in the facility, she said, were selected at random during a surprise inspection during the week of May 31. And one of these children “disclosed that he had witnessed an act that in our policy would substantiate and require an investigation into that act take place,” the commissioner said.
Local law enforcement was notified and referrals were made to a DCS hotline following the incident, she said.
“Since the day after that unannounced site visit,” Nichols told the lawmakers, “there’s been an ongoing investigation involving local law enforcement, FBI was notified, the Office of Inspector General for ORR—they call that the Office of Refugee Resettlement—and the federal Homeland Security have all been notified and are working in collaboration with local law enforcement and our department to investigate what this youth disclosed.”
As of Tuesday, 41 unaccompanied minors are being housed inside the Chattanooga facility, she said. It’s being operated by the nonprofit Baptiste Group, which was licensed by DCS to help provide a temporary shelter for the children and has to contract with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is overseen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Republican lawmakers in Tennessee have voiced criticism over why such a facility is being operated in Chattanooga, located thousands of miles away from the U.S.-Mexico border. Sens. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.) in late May sent a letter to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra about an alleged “lack of transparency” about the conditions of the HHS-operated facilities for unaccompanied minors in their state.
Both senators have used the border crisis to skewer President Joe Biden after he issued dozens of orders rescinding ones handed down by former President Donald Trump. Biden, Mayorkas, and Becerra have defended the administration’s immigration policies, terming Trump’s orders as inhumane and ineffective.
During the Tennessee House hearing on Wednesday, one state representative openly questioned whether there were more cases of abuse at the Chattanooga facility.
“Based on everything you said, this facility did not report this abuse until it was disclosed to you … it never happened until you took the time to sit down with this individual and ask them questions that was disclosed to you,” Rep. John Ragan, a Republican, asked Nichols. “How do we know that there are not 40 to 50 kids over there who have abused?” he asked.
“We’re not talking about refugees who are coming from war-torn Somalia or North Africa where people are being persecuted for just being [of] a certain religion,” he added. “These are people coming across the border, illegally, into our country that are being deemed refugees—which is not even close to being who they are—being sent to our communities here in Chattanooga, which is two and a half hours down the road to being dropped off to other places of Tennessee where we don’t know where they’re going.”
The Epoch Times has contacted DHS and Tennessee’s DCS for comment.