Lillie Laster Jones, whose day care license was revoked in 2006 after numerous violations, used her family’s church, New Birth Deliverance Ministry, to reopen her Lakeland, Florida, day care under a religious exemption. Credit: Ernst Peters/The Ledger

In the day care world, Lillie Laster Jones was notorious.

Almost everything that could go wrong at her Lakeland, Florida, day care, Little Golden Angels Academy, did. She hired a convicted criminal who should not have been working around kids. Workers left toxic materials within reach of children.

It finally hit a breaking point in 2006. Her workers crammed at least 21 children into a van for a field trip, drove them to a park, and then left a 2-year-old girl behind. The toddler wandered alone for an hour before a stranger called the police.

The state revoked Jones’s day care license in July 2006. But she found a saving grace.

Jones rebranded herself as a religious provider, and less than one month later, she was back in business.

Florida is one of 16 states that grants certain freedom from oversight to religious day cares. In several states, that freedom is nearly absolute.

The God Loophole

But because of concerns about child safety, Florida designed a hybrid system. The state decides whether a day care qualifies for the religious exemption. Then it’s up to a network of faith-based accrediting groups to keep those religious day cares in check.

In at least three cases reviewed by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, that system has allowed dangerous day care operations to be reborn after their licenses were revoked.

What’s more, some of the accrediting agencies that are supposed to monitor these religious day cares are full of conflicts of interest: At least 10 day care operators sit on the boards of the very agencies that inspect their businesses.

“That is a prescription for exploitation,” said Jack Levine, a longtime children’s advocate in Florida.

Florida’s religious exemption dates back to the 1970s. Church groups wanted the government out of their day cares and religious schools. But child welfare advocates demanded that all child care centers meet minimum requirements.

So Florida lawmakers came up with a compromise. Aside from requiring background screenings for workers, the Florida Department of Children and Families doesn’t regulate religious day cares. Instead, faith-based accrediting groups inspect and monitor religious child care centers.

Today, there are 25 accrediting groups that oversee more than 400 faith-based day cares and preschools in Florida. Religious day cares can choose which group they want to monitor them. That’s led to some questionable arrangements.

Marc Mortensen is the president of the accrediting group Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools. He also runs a religious preschool and school, Westwood Christian School in Miami, with his wife, Wanda. Marc Mortensen’s accrediting group oversees their business.

The executive director of the accrediting group said this posed no conflict. “He’s still subject to the same requirements,” Howard Burke said. Those requirements, such as staffing levels and health and safety standards, are determined by each accrediting agency.

Darlene S. Clark is the director of RiverWalk Christian Childcare in Sanford, Florida. She also is one of six inspectors for the accrediting agency Church of God Association of Christian Schools – the same oversight group that monitors her day care. While Clark doesn’t personally inspect her day care, one of her colleagues does, according to Lola Brewer, the accrediting group’s executive director.

“It would be unethical for a child care center director to inspect her own facility,” Brewer said.

Aaron Slack is one of the directors of the accrediting group called Nicene Schools International, Inc. His group accredits only three religious day cares in Florida, according to state records. One of them, Grace Community School of Fort Myers, is run by Slack’s wife, Amy.

A story in the Ocala Star Banner showed how one unscrupulous day care owner exploited the accrediting system.

Christina Perera created her own accrediting agency to oversee her embattled religious day care, Kids Zone USA in Ocala. Another group had revoked the accreditation after they determined her day care wasn’t following the rules. As the newspaper put it, “In effect, it appears the day care was accrediting itself.” Perera’s organization, Florida CROSS, is still a recognized accreditor.

The problems extend beyond the makeup of these oversight groups.

Several of these accrediting agencies have helped the most dangerous day care operators reopen, even after state regulators took the rare step of shutting them down.

It takes a lot to close a day care, but in November 2004, the Florida Department of Children and Families had had enough of Donald and Galynda Henderson. The state revoked their day care license after complaints that workers were slapping children with paddles and inspectors found recurring supervision problems.

The Hendersons found a workaround. They applied for a religious exemption with the state and asked the Florida Coalition of Christian Private Schools Accreditation to certify their newly religious day care. Despite their history of problems, they were up and running again in November 2010. The Hendersons’ new day care, Fields Christian Academy, is still operating in Jacksonville today.

There also was Belinda Anderson. She was stripped of her day care license in 2005 after state inspectors found 53 violations at her Sebring, Florida, day care, including lapses in supervision and unsafe playground equipment. Anderson then refashioned herself as a religious provider, and after getting accreditation from the Florida League of Christian Schools, reopened her business.

After her license was revoked for leaving a child at a park, Lillie Laster Jones used her family’s church, New Birth Deliverance Ministry, to reopen her day care under a religious exemption. The accrediting agency Narrow Door Pentecostal Council of God also gave her its blessing.

She was soon in trouble again. On July 7, 2008, Jones’s employee put the young children at New Birth Learning Center, her new religious day care, down for a nap. Then she went upstairs to change a baby’s diaper, leaving the children alone.

That’s when a teenager who was at the day care cornered a 5-year-old boy and sexually abused him, according to police reports.

The victim’s brother witnessed the abuse and rushed upstairs to tell the teacher. She told the teenager to “stop being nasty”, according to police reports. She never reported the sexual assault of the boy to authorities.

Later that day, the victim and his brother told their mom what had happened. She called the Lakeland Police Department.

The teenager was arrested and charged with two counts of lewd molestation. Police also charged the teacher for failing to report child abuse, but prosecutors eventually dropped the charge on a technicality.

It was at that point that Jones’s faith-based accrediting agency finally decided she was dangerous.

The day after the incident, Narrow Door Pentecostal Council of God revoked her accreditation.

Amy Julia Harris

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.