Deborah Stokes, seen in a mug shot, has operated a string of church day cares across southern Alabama even though she has been arrested multiple times, for crimes ranging from theft to child endangerment. Credit: Courtesy of the Mobile County Sheriff's Office

For more than a decade, Deborah Stokes managed to operate a string of dangerous day cares around southern Alabama simply by claiming she ran a church. But no more.

Scores of parents, former employees and local officials spent years unsuccessfully trying to get state regulators to shut her down, saying that her church was a scam and that her day cares were endangering children and exploiting workers.

Last year, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting exposed how Stokes abused Alabama’s religious exemption law, which shields religious day cares from standard licensing rules, by claiming to run a church that had no congregation or services.

Now people think she may have left the child care industry for good.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said Kimberly Nicole Hinman, a former employee at one of Stokes’ day cares in Foley. “We’re very happy that she’s no longer hurting children or in a position to scam desperate people.”

The God Loophole

Stokes had run at least a dozen day cares over the years, primarily using the church she created, Alpha & Omega Ministries. Early in her career, she was convicted of child endangerment for leaving children in a dangerous building and temporarily was banned from operating a day care. She later ran one of her child cares out of an uninspected warehouse that one worker called “a house out of a horror movie.” She failed to pay so many employees that in 2010, she was sued by 10 of her workers.

Despite these troubles, Stokes was able to resurrect her day care businesses again and again by hopping from town to town, with no state agency able to permanently shut her down, thanks to an Alabama law that exempts religious day cares from most government oversight.

Sixteen states allow religious day cares to operate free from some licensing requirements. In Alabama and five other states, the exemptions are so broad that even the most basic rules are lifted – such as bans on hitting kids and requirements for how many workers must be hired to watch children and for whether they need to be trained. State investigators often are powerless to intervene when there are problems.

After Reveal’s investigation was published, a flood of parents pulled their children out of Stokes’ most recent day care, Little Nemo’s by the Bay in Spanish Fort, according to Jameshia Rogers, the day care’s director.

“Parents would show me Stokes’ mug shot from the article and say, ‘We can’t have our kids in here,’ ” Rogers said. “They were just snatching their kids out of there.”

Stokes also failed to pay about $9,000 in rent for Little Nemo’s and was kicked out of the building sometime in August, according to Larry Chason, Stokes’ landlord.

“She didn’t want to go easy, so we had to evict her,” Chason said.

Stokes appears not to have opened another day care since.

But she does have a new venture: a soul food restaurant in Daphne called Sassafratz. The new establishment, which opened in November, already has been subject to the same kinds of complaints that dogged Stokes’ day care businesses for the last decade.

Stokes’ restaurant initially shared a kitchen, facilities and food permit with BEK Catering, which ran afoul of U.S. Food and Drug Administration rules and was subject to sanctions last summer for contamination and mislabeling of seafood products.

Jeff Spence, who works at the catering company, said Stokes approached the catering business, offering to share facilities and rent. But, he claims, she never paid.

Sherry Peelman said she worked at Stokes’ restaurant for six days before quitting.

“The place is horrible,” Peelman said. “I’ve been in restaurants for almost 30 years. This isn’t how you do it.”

Stokes did not buy high-quality cleaning supplies to clean a kitchen full of grease and grime, Peelman said. There were no ticket books for waitresses to write down customers’ orders. Stokes would implore her employees to bring in coffeemakers and waffle irons from home.

Peelman and several other former employees say they have filed complaints with the Alabama Department of Labor, saying Stokes has refused to pay them.

Stokes obtained a food permit in December, according to Bill Kelly, environmental supervisor with the Baldwin County Health Department. He said the restaurant is currently up to code.

Contacted by telephone, Stokes declined to answer Reveal’s questions.

“I’m not gonna answer anything,” she said. “I don’t care what you print.”

Amy Julia Harris can be reached at Follow her on Twitter: @amyjharris.

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Amy Julia Harris is a reporter for Reveal, covering vulnerable communities. She and Reveal reporter Shoshana Walter exposed how courts across the country are sending defendants to rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Their work was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting and won a Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists. It also led to four government investigations, including two criminal probes and four federal class-action lawsuits alleging slavery and fraud.

Harris was a Livingston Award for Young Journalists finalist for her investigation into the lack of government oversight of religious-based day cares, which led to tragedies for children in Alabama and elsewhere. In a previous project for Reveal, she uncovered widespread squalor in a public housing complex in the San Francisco Bay Area and traced it back to mismanagement and fraud in the troubled public housing agency.

Before joining Reveal, Harris was an education reporter at The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. She has also written for The Seattle Times, Half Moon Bay Review, and Campaigns and Elections Politics Magazine.