by Jon Styf
Tennessee has spent nearly $60 million over 15 years educating children who entered the state as unaccompanied minors, according to the state’s Fiscal Review Committee estimates.
Krista Lee Carsner, executive director of the Tennessee General Assembly’s Fiscal Review Committee, presented her cost estimate research to the state’s Study Committee on Refugee Issues, saying 8,800 unaccompanied minors have come to live in the state since fiscal year 2015.
Carsner estimated Tennessee spent an average of $3.9 million annually on education for those minors and the highest estimated year was a cost of $13.9 million. The state also spent nearly $85,000 annually on TennCare health care costs for those minors, Carsner said.
The committee also heard testimony Tuesday from Gov. Bill Lee’s office, the Department of Children’s Services and U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn during the meeting.
“What we see happening at the Southern border is a humanitarian crisis, It is an environmental crisis. It is a national security crisis,” said Blackburn, who joined the meeting via video conference call. “As I continue to say, until we address this and secure that border and get a handle on the sex trafficking, human trafficking, the gangs, the drug trafficking … every town is a border town, every state is a border state.”
Tennessee Chief Operating Officer Brandon Gibson addressed conversations with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services related to unaccompanied minors being transported into the state.
HHS acknowledged a flight in late May transported children into Chattanooga, but Gibson said HHS said it was not willing to inform local law enforcement when children are brought into the state because of privacy concerns. Gibson also said the National Guard reached out previously about whether the state had any facilities to temporarily host unaccompanied minors and the governor’s office had responded it did not have appropriate facilities.
“My reading of their policy indicated that HHS would notify local law enforcement when an unaccompanied child was released from a facility if local law enforcement requested that notification,” Gibson said, saying that many of HHS’ responses to her questions were links sent to HHS policy statements online.
State Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, brought up concerns about a second flight that reportedly came into the Knoxville airport with children aboard. Gibson said HHS reported no record of that flight.
“I think we have to know about these children coming into the state because there is human trafficking going on,” Briggs said. “Who were those kids that they saw?”
State Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, said it was clear everyone on the committee, which includes all Republicans and no Democrats, want the children brought into the state to be safe and they need better information in order to make certain happens, especially after the state suspended the Baptiste Group’s license to operate La Casa de Sydney after a sexual battery arrest at the facility perpetrated against migrant children.
“When I look at the definition of human trafficking this, in fact, if you don’t follow what Sen. (Todd) Gardenhire said and you believe that children were brought here in the dark of night and they were placed in a group home that has now, the governor has thankfully taken their licensure away, and those children are all gone and none of this is communicated to anybody,” Williams said. “That is, by definition, trafficking or exploiting children and the federal government is doing it.”
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