Hundreds of religious day cares across America face little oversight, thanks to religious exemption laws that shield them from child safety requirements. Many religious day cares are not required to be inspected, train their workers or follow any staff-to-child ratios.

Our investigation last week found that in the six states with the broadest exemptions, children have been neglected, harshly punished and even died in religious day cares. Regulators often were powerless to address the problems.

But the federal government, several state legislatures and local health departments have decided that granting faith-based day cares too much freedom puts children at risk. Here are three ways that regulators across the country have tried to close the oversight gap.

1. Abolish the religious exemption.

Oklahoma

Oklahoma used to have a broad religious exemption until the horrors at one facility exposed the hazards of the law.

Robert Stanley believed it was God’s will that he start a religious orphanage in 1961, according to a history of Miracle Hill by Frances Bryant.

Stanley ran the orphanage on 10 acres of an abandoned high school a few miles north of Wewoka, Oklahoma. Almost no state regulators would set foot in the facility because of Oklahoma’s religious exemption, a 1953 law that put religious day cares, group homes and orphanages such as Miracle Hill outside of their reach.

Miracle Hill housed about 245 children during the three years it was open. Unwanted children from far and wide were sent there, according to Bryant’s history. A local judge sent juvenile delinquents to Miracle Hill. Some parents, including a drunk man who said he didn’t want his two children anymore, dumped youngsters on Stanley’s doorstep.

But despite Stanley’s lofty intentions, Miracle Hill was far from miraculous.

Children lived in squalid conditions, in rooms overrun with vermin. They rarely had enough to eat because Stanley relied solely on the scant donations from churches. They had almost no medical care and no schooling. A child welfare investigator called Miracle Hill “absolutely rock bottom.”

Because Stanley was devoutly religious, corporal punishment was common. Children suffered severe discipline and regularly were beaten and whipped. One child welfare report said children were whipped until blood dripped from their backs and they were “striped with welts.”

“Stanley’s dream to provide 500 dependent children with spiritual love, food, clothing, shelter and schooling in a children’s home that would be self-supporting never came true for the children entrusted to his care,” Bryant wrote.

Finally, the stories of Miracle Hill made their way to the public. A local newspaper published a 10-part series exposing the neglect and abuse at Miracle Hill, shocking state legislators. They began talking about how Miracle Hill could have slipped through the cracks.

In 1963, following the newspaper’s exposé the Oklahoma Legislature abolished the religious exemption. Lawmakers gave the child care licensing division the authority to regulate and set minimum standards for all day cares, including religious ones.

Today, Oklahoma Child Care Services licenses more than 4,200 child care centers and homes.

“There was such an uproar about this horrible day care that today, whenever someone wants to talk about religious exemptions, you just have to bring up Miracle Hill,” said Lesli Blazer, head of child care licensing in Oklahoma. “We never want that to happen again.”

Texas

In 1997, the Texas Legislature exempted religious day cares and children’s homes from standard licensing rules. Rather than be licensed by the state, church day cares could be monitored by a group called the Texas Association of Christian Child-Care Agencies. Only eight day care centers and children’s homes took advantage of the religious exemption, but problems soon arose.

Three of the exempt facilities accredited by the Christian group were run by pastors who served on the accrediting group’s board. “Thus, these pastors were in charge of approving, inspecting and policing their own facilities,” according to a report by the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, a nonprofit research organization opposed to the religious exemption.

Texas lawmakers soon became alarmed by reports of physical abuse at the exempt day cares.

One study found that “the rate of confirmed abuse and neglect at alternatively-accredited facilities was 25 times higher than that of state-licensed facilities.”

In 2001, the Texas Legislature reversed course and made religious day cares follow the same licensing rules as secular centers.

Alabama

Alabama’s religious exemption has been on the books since the 1980s, after pastors convinced the state Legislature that regulating their day cares violated the separation of church and state.

Robin Mears, head of the Alabama Christian Education Association, helped pushed for the state’s religious exemption.

“As pastors looked at it, a license meant that a government body had to give permission to the church,” Mears said. “Well, they had permission from their congregation, as well as from God, to do what they were doing to meet the needs of their families.”

But an investigation from Reveal last week found that children in Alabama’s 900 unlicensed religious day cares can be seriously hurt when there is no oversight. Alabama children were hit, slapped and neglected in church day cares, documents show, but state regulators were powerless to investigate parent complaints. Dangerous day care operators also flocked to the religious exemption to avoid oversight. In Alabama, 13 day care operators lost their licenses from 2004 to 2014; three reopened as religious entities.

One state lawmaker who read the stories said she wants to change that.

For the first time in the state’s history, Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, announced that she will introduce a bill this week to abolish Alabama’s religious exemption.

2. Make religious day cares follow minimum standards if they accept federal money.

The federal government has decided that any day care ­– including religious facilities – that receives federal child care money must conduct criminal background checks on employees, meet minimum standards for worker training and operate in a safe building.

But many states have ignored the federal rules and gave millions to exempt day cares that didn’t meet basic standards and never were inspected for compliance, according to a 2013 report from the Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general.

“We believe that these gaps in health and safety requirements and gaps in monitoring represent vulnerabilities that could potentially lead to harm for children in care, including care financed by the Federal government,” the report said.

In Alabama, which has almost no regulation for religious facilities, faith-based day cares drew more than $123 million from the federal child care subsidy program from 2011 to 2014, according to state data. Licensed day cares, meanwhile, have to be regularly inspected to ensure they are meeting child-to-staff ratios and properly training their staff.

That’s changing.

In November 2014, when Congress reauthorized the Child Care and Development Fund – the block grant program that helps poor families pay for day care – it added expansive new regulations that require all day cares that accept the funds to be inspected annually and follow more training requirements and background checks.

Starting this November, religious day cares that receive federal money must be inspected on a yearly basis for health, safety and fire compliance, according to the new guidelines. Workers at religious day cares benefiting from the federal program also will have to be trained in how to safely put infants to sleep and take classes on first aid and child safety.

Many states already require training and inspections for religious day cares, but the new rules will have a major effect in Alabama, where, for the first time, the more than 400 religious facilities that accept federal funds will be inspected and face increased regulation.

The new rules for religious Alabama day cares will be in place by October, according to Barry Spear, a spokesman for the state Department of Human Resources.

While the new federal law is sweeping, many religious day cares will be unaffected. The 485 faith-based day cares in Alabama that don’t take federal money will not be subject to increased safety standards or inspections.

3. Create local standards.

In Alabama, two county health departments got fed up with the lack of safety requirements for religious day cares and decided to act locally.

The health departments in the state’s two largest counties – Mobile and Jefferson – created their own regulations for religious day cares. Every licensed and license-exempt day care center in their counties must be inspected to remain open.

“Day care-age children are the most vulnerable,” said Stephanie Woods-Crawford, director of inspection services for the Mobile County Health Department. “We developed those rules for us to be able to keep a watchful eye over them and make sure they’re protected.”

Mobile County was the first to create its own regulations, which dictate child-to-staff ratios, safety and cleanliness of facilities, rules for diapering and medication distribution, the type of toys offered, food preparation and more. They also require inspections by a county health inspector every quarter.

The county’s tougher regulations were enacted in 2008, Woods-Crawford said, after children were found in deplorable conditions at license-exempt day cares.

Gary Burke, owner of Burke’s Daycare in Mobile. Ala., was arrested in 2007 and charged with three counts of first-degree sexual abuse of children at the day care. Mobile County is now one of two counties in Alabama that require license-exempt day cares to be inspected. Credit: Alabama Media Group file photo Credit: Alabama Media Group file photo

In one well-publicized 2005 incident, a toddler died after being accidentally left in a Mobile church day care van in 100-degree heat for more than two hours.

“The kids can’t speak for themselves,” Woods-Crawford said. “In some cases, parents are dropping kids off, but they’re not inside the center seeing how kids are being taken care of.”

The Jefferson County Health Department reviewed Mobile County’s child care requirements, adapted them and passed its own regulations in 2012 that cover both licensed and license-exempt centers.

Jefferson County’s regulations, similar to Mobile’s, address employee credentials, child health, hygienic diapering, safety and cleanliness of facilities, and safety training for staff.

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.