Robert Frost, owner of Christian’s Day Care and Learning Academy in Birmingham, Ala., was accused of molesting three girls at his church day care in 2010. He was charged with first-degree sexual abuse, convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Credit: Alabama Department of Corrections

The day care owner was arrested in 2010 in Birmingham, Alabama.

Three young girls said Robert Frost, the owner of Christian’s Day Care and Learning Academy, had molested them for years at his church day care. They reported that Frost would sit them on his knee, slip his hands beneath their clothes and violate them.

The consequences for Frost came quickly. At trial, he was criminally charged with first-degree sexual abuse, convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

The family of one of Frost’s victims then sued the organization they thought was in charge of the day care: Wooten Chapel Freewill Baptist Church.

They had good reason to think the church was responsible. Frost’s day care was registered under Wooten Chapel’s name. The church’s pastor was the day care’s contact person.

Several of the day care workers were longtime Wooten Chapel congregants and taught Bible study at the church. Frost offered parents discounts if they attended the church’s worship services. And kids were transported to the day care in the church’s white van.

The God Loophole

But after the abuse scandal, the church’s pastor, Curtis Todd, said Wooten Chapel had nothing to do with the day care.

“We didn’t know nothing about it,” Todd said. “Frost gave us no money. We gave him no money.”

Frost’s victim was trapped. The state of Alabama had provided almost no oversight for the day care because officials thought it was part of a church. But the church took no responsibility when it came time for accountability.

Alabama is one of 16 states that exempts faith-based day cares from certain licensing rules designed to protect children. The 900 religious day cares in Alabama don’t have to train their workers, hire a minimum number of staff or be regularly inspected.

An investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found that these laws meant to help religious day cares can lead to tragic results for children and parents. Alabama parents reported their children were hit, slapped and punched dozens of times at church day cares – but state officials had no jurisdiction to investigate because the centers’ religious status shielded them from oversight.

To obtain an exemption in Alabama, all applicants must do is send the state Department of Human Resources a piece of paper saying the day care they want to open is an integral part of a religious organization. State regulators rubberstamp the applications and don’t verify whether there is a real religious connection.

Unscrupulous day care owners with flimsy connections to churches have exploited that.

One woman has been able to use Alabama’s religious exemption to operate a dozen dangerous day cares around the state by declaring that she runs a church, despite the fact that it has no worship services or congregation. Her religious status makes her virtually untouchable. At least three other secular day care operators in Alabama were shut down for putting children in danger, only to reopen as church day cares – this time with no oversight.

Eventually, the question of whether Robert Frost’s day care was truly tied to a church made it all the way to the Alabama Supreme Court.

Last year, the court ruled that the church had nothing to do with Frost’s day care. That meant he never should have received a religious exemption in the first place. And it makes it unlikely that Frost’s victim will ever see a cent in damages.

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Frost’s young victim – known in court documents just by her initials, K.D. – attended Frost’s day care from 2008 to 2010.

Soon after K.D. started, her mother noticed that the usually independent child was suddenly clingy. The little girl would urinate on herself, burst into tears and break into hysterics if her mother raised her voice at her daughter, according to court documents. She became afraid of the dark and couldn’t sleep in her room alone.

One day in late January 2010, K.D. told her mother that she hated her and was going to run away. Desperate to understand what was wrong, K.D.’s mother took her daughter to Alabama Psychiatric Services. It was then that K.D. revealed what was wrong.

Frost, known to the children at his day care as “Mr. Bob,” had abused her, she said. She told psychiatrists that Frost would sit her on his lap and fondle her and touch her genitals, according to court records.

Frost warned K.D. not to tell her mother what had happened. If she did, he said, her mom would hate her and people would think she was “a liar” and “a bad kid,” according to court records.

So K.D. kept silent. But she wasn’t alone. Two other girls also came forward to say Frost had sexually abused them at his church day care.

Frost was arrested Jan. 29, 2010, and charged with multiple counts of sexual abuse, according to court records. He was convicted of molesting one girl, but the jury failed to reach a verdict on felony sexual abuse charges involving K.D. and another child. Frost was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

K.D. and one other victim – R.C. – then sued the church. In civil court filings, R.C.’s family argued that Wooten Chapel acted with “negligence and wantonness” by allowing Frost to “use their legal status as a non-profit religious organization so as to avoid regulation and oversight by state agencies.”

One parent later testified that Frost admitted to aligning himself with a church to “save money and avoid state laws and regulations.”

Wooten Chapel denied any connection. The church’s pastor, Todd, testified in February 2015 that the church “has never operated or been affiliated with any daycare.”

But there’s plenty of evidence that the church and day care were connected.

An official with Alabama’s child care licensing division testified that it was Wooten Chapel that applied to the state for a religious exemption to operate a day care. She produced documents listing Wooten Chapel as the owner and Todd as the day care contact. Because the church applied to run a day care outside Alabama regulations, she said, Wooten Chapel “had voluntarily undertaken a duty to ensure that no harm resulted from its actions.”

Three teachers at Frost’s day care had deep connections to Wooten Chapel. Mollie Freeman was the church’s director. Patricia Smith and Roberta Thomas, who worked at the day care, taught a Sunday Bible study class at Wooten Chapel.

Frost himself was employed by Wooten Chapel as a maintenance man.

Frost even offered a $100 day care discount to parents who agreed to go to church at Wooten Chapel.

K.D.’s mother testified that she attended the church services just to receive the $100 discount. She said she remembered a time when Frost asked the church’s pastor for permission to offer the discount, according to court records.

Frost also transported children to and from the day care in a white van owned by the church – which Wooten Chapel had purchased specifically for Frost to use for the day care, according to court records. A church representative said the church sold the van to Frost, but the van’s title said it belonged to the church.

On the day Frost’s day care closed, court records say his employees approached parents of the children and told them that the day care’s operations would continue. The new location? A five-minute drive down the road, at Wooten Chapel.

But in May 2015, the Jefferson County Circuit Court found that Wooten Chapel was not legally responsible for what happened to K.D. and would not have to pay. K.D.’s family appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court. The other victim’s civil suit is still pending.

The Alabama Supreme Court also ruled that Wooten Chapel had no connection to the religious day care using its name. In November, the Supreme Court ordered Frost and his now-shuttered day care to pay $4 million in damages to K.D. for the abuse she suffered. But it’s unlikely she will get any money.

Ed Odum, the lawyer who represented Frost, said Frost is broke and the day care had no insurance.

And Wooten Chapel Baptist Church won’t have to pay a penny.

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.