She’s been called a crook. A con artist. A snake in the grass. But in Alabama, the only thing that really matters to state regulators is that she calls herself a Christian.
She ran a church day care from a decrepit warehouse that one worker called a “house out of a horror movie.” She opened another child care center next to a porn store.
Each of her day cares has been dogged by complaints of abuse and neglect. Workers said she hit children with flyswatters, locked them in closets or rapped them with rulers. She’s failed to pay so many employees that one reportedly slapped her in the face and another threatened to hurl a pickle jar at her, according to police reports.
She has been arrested multiple times, for crimes ranging from theft to child endangerment.
In total, Deborah Stokes has operated at least a dozen Christian day cares across southern Alabama. Every time she is chased out of town by furious parents, workers or landlords, she reopens in the next town over. In the process, she has collected at least $86,000 in taxpayer funding to run her day cares with almost no oversight.
She doesn’t need a license. She doesn’t need a curriculum or qualified workers. All she needs is a building with a roof, desperate parents and a piece of paper saying she runs a church.
In 16 states, day cares that claim to be religious get a pass on certain licensing rules. Alabama offers religious day cares the most freedom of any state, shielding them from most government oversight.
Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found no evidence that Stokes’ church, which she founded, holds services or performs outreach. The ministry’s address changes often, to Stokes’ new day care or her rental home. But by saying that her day cares are religious, she has remained virtually untouchable for a decade.
Police, county health officials, building inspectors, city council members and throngs of angry parents and former employees have done everything in their limited power to shut down Stokes for good.
All of them have failed.
I saw her put a 5-year-old boy in that high chair and leave him there for three hours.”– Kimberly Nicole Hinman
former employee of Debbie Stokes
“I wouldn’t trust her with a glow stick, let alone a child,” said Kimberly Nicole Hinman, a former employee at one of Stokes’ day cares. “But she says she’s a Christian, and people trust her.”
A Reveal investigation found that the religious exemption has become a safe haven for dangerous day care operators who can’t stay out of trouble. Combing through records around the country, we identified at least 80 operators who rebranded themselves as religious – sometimes just days after regulators took the extreme step of shutting down their licensed day cares:
- Belinda Anderson’s secular Florida day care was shuttered in 2005 after inspectors found 53 violations in less than a year, including losing track of children, failing to conduct background screenings of employees and not following the required staff-to-child ratio, according to licensing documents. Despite taking the rare step of stripping Anderson of her license, regulators couldn’t stop her for good. She applied for a religious exemption through her husband’s church, where he was a pastor, to run an exempt day care called Gifts 4 Life Christian Academy until 2011. Anderson did not respond to requests for comment.
- Lorrie Stokes ran a licensed facility called Lorrie’s Little Lambs Day Care Center in Martinsville, Virginia, until she was shut down in 2012. State child care inspectors found that she hadn’t completed required background checks on employees and had repeated problems with sanitation that placed “the health, safety, and welfare of children at risk,” according to licensing investigations. She then turned to the religious exemption to open a day care called Fresh Start Ministries at the same address. Her new religious day care collected more than $214,000 in taxpayer funding from 2011 to 2014, according to state data. She did not respond to requests for comment.
- James Cabral ran a secular day care in Indiana until his license was revoked in 2010 for not hiring enough staff, leaving dangerous chemicals within children’s reach and repeatedly letting kids wander around unsupervised. Three years later, Cabral founded a religious ministry called Plomca Ministry Inc. and went on to open First Step Child Care Ministry, with a religious exemption. His new religious operation faced almost no regulation – and collected more than $111,000 in public day care funding in 2013 and 2014. Reached by phone, Cabral did not answer questions, saying, “It isn’t a good time.”
Deborah Stokes has a checkered history, too. She got her start in day care 14 years ago in the city of Saraland, just outside Mobile. A few weeks after she opened, the Saraland police arrested her for child endangerment.
The God Loophole
Stokes had placed children in a building that didn’t meet basic health and safety standards, according to court records. She was criminally charged and later convicted. She also was banned from operating a day care for two years.
Contacted by Reveal last fall, Stokes said it was all a misunderstanding.
“First, the city says it’s fine, and three weeks later, they come in and are screaming about child endangerment,” she said.
Alabama offers church day cares the broadest latitude of any state in the nation. That’s thanks to a 1980s lobbying blitz by representatives of religious groups, who argued that regulation would violate the separation of church and state.
Today, more than 900 Alabama day cares say they are affiliated with religious groups, leaving almost half of all child care in the state free from most regulation, according to licensing documents.
Day care owners there have a major financial incentive to say they are religious: Being licensed means complying with frequent state inspections, providing extensive training for employees and hiring additional workers based on the number of children in their care. Religious day cares face none of those rules.
GET UPDATES TO THIS INVESTIGATION
There’s more to come in our investigation into how day cares exploit religious freedom laws. Subscribe to our newsletter so you don’t miss a story.
That’s not the only incentive. Alabama is unique in how thick a wall it has built between religious day cares and regulators. In all other states that offer exemptions, child care regulators still follow up on many complaints. In Alabama, they don’t have the legal authority to investigate any. It is up to police, county health departments and district attorneys to intervene if there are problems.
Those local officials’ limited powers were no match for Stokes’ tenacity.
Within a year of her first brush with the law, Stokes registered her church, Alpha & Omega Ministries, with the Alabama secretary of state. She laid out her plans to operate religious day cares to “use the ministry of education for the spreading of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
No safety approvals
Alpha and Omega Christian Preschool opened its doors in Semmes, in western Mobile County, in April 2006. To open, all Deborah Stokes needed was approval from the county fire and building departments.
But Nick Boren, an inspector with the Mobile Fire-Rescue Department, told Stokes that her day care was a fire hazard. “There is nothing on the inspection sheets giving Mrs. Stokes permission to begin operations,” a later health inspection report found.
Stokes opened anyway.
The Alabama Department of Human Resources never verified whether Stokes had met all the safety requirements. The department takes it on faith that churches will tell the truth about complying with the law. Barry Spear, a spokesman for the licensing division, said the department “does not have the authority to verify these requirements.”
Rather listen to the story?
Subscribe to the Reveal podcast to get this and other stories.
Five months after Stokes’ day care began enrolling children, parents complained to county health inspector Alice Rollins.
Rollins dropped in on Stokes and found babies lying in carriers on the floor because Stokes hadn’t bought enough cribs. An infant had been neglected for so long that “urine had soaked through its outer garment as it sat on the carpet,” according to Rollins’ notes.
Electrical outlets in the kitchen didn’t have childproof plugs or cover plates, making it “very easy for a little finger to touch a live wire,” Rollins wrote. Electric hot pots were overflowing with carrots and chicken even though Stokes had told the health department that she wouldn’t be cooking.
Rollins shut down Alpha and Omega Christian Preschool on the spot. The day care, she wrote in her report, “posed a clear and present danger as well as an imminent health hazard to the children in Mrs. Stokes’ care.”
Rollins would find her popping up again and again in the coming years.
Stokes opened at least five day cares in Mobile from 2006 to 2010, some just a few blocks apart. Rollins investigated more than 20 complaints in all and shut down Stokes’ facilities twice more. But that fix was temporary; Rollins lacked the authority to shutter them for good, even when she received complaints that Stokes was hitting children or putting them in danger.
Miska Barnes pulled her child from A Step Ahead, one of Stokes’ day cares in Mobile, in 2009. She filed a complaint with the health department that there was a hole in the ceiling that “makes water puddle in the hallway and children are falling down.” She also said she found a box of “some sort of poison” sitting in the kitchen, in reach of children.
Soon after, Stokes left Mobile, facing legal problems on multiple fronts.
Stokes was evicted from three of her day cares in September 2009 after her landlord failed to pay rent and the properties were foreclosed. It took bank representatives barging into her day cares and yelling, “Get your ass out of my building,” and “yelling, cursing and banging on the windows and doors” before Stokes left, according to court documents.
Around the same time, Stokes failed to pay rent at another day care property in Mobile, owing her landlord more than $6,000 on her lease, according to a lawsuit.
She also was sued by 10 of her day care workers who said she collectively owed them more than $6,600.
These were not the last of Stokes’ financial problems. She would go on to declare bankruptcy in 2010 and again in 2015, telling the court that she made barely $1,300 a month from her day care business. In her 2010 filings, Stokes reported that she had $150 in her bank account.
On the move again
Deborah Stokes headed 20 miles east of Mobile, to the rural town of Loxley, in 2010. She opened her first day care in a red-roofed building along an industrial stretch of Railroad Avenue.
There, she racked up complaints with the Baldwin County Health Department and soon packed up and moved again – a quarter-mile down the road, into what long had been an abandoned warehouse.
“It looked like a house out of a horror movie,” said Sara Morales, a former Stokes employee. “The outside was rusted. There were old cars everywhere. The lights were so dim that you couldn’t see anything. It was awful. I just thought, ‘Who would bring their child here? Are these people crazy?’ ”
Working-class parents in Loxley weren’t crazy. They were desperate.
Morales knew firsthand. She had a job at a Dairy Queen and also worked part time for Stokes to earn some extra cash. Because day care was so expensive, her husband stayed at home with their young children. Otherwise, she said, “all my paycheck would go to child care.”
Most child care in Alabama runs $100 to $150 a week per child. At Stokes’ first day care in Mobile, she was charging parents $40 a week per child, according to advertisements she provided to the health department. In Loxley, she often would charge parents $100 a week to care for multiple children, according to former workers.
Stokes also catered to parents on federal assistance, collecting at least $86,000 in 2009 from a government program that helps the poor pay for child care, according to Alabama Department of Human Resources data. Her subsequent day cares collected thousands more.
Local fire and building inspectors say they never knew Stokes was operating inside the warehouse.
“I can go in and inspect any building in Alabama,” said Ed Paulk, the Alabama fire marshal. “But I don’t know there’s a new day care that’s opened up unless the owner tells me.”
Kim Nelson, the office administrator of the Baldwin County Building Inspection Department, said she never issued a permit for it, either.
The only inspectors who set foot in Stokes’ warehouse were those with the Baldwin County Health Department. They investigated complaints that Stokes was cooking illegally, serving children spoiled milk and bringing in food from questionable sources.
But inspectors couldn’t do much.
Bill Kelly, environmental supervisor with the health department, said he could not fine Stokes for being out of compliance. All his department could do was issue her a notice of violation. If things had gotten really bad, Kelly said the agency could have asked the district attorney to intervene and force Stokes to cooperate – but “we did not have to do that,” he said.
In a telephone interview, Stokes said these and other reports against her day cares over the years were the products of regulators and workers intent on persecuting her and her church.
“They are lies from the pit of hell,” she said. “I know the law, and I work within the law. These things they’ve said have happened at my day care – I would be in jail right now if they were true.”
Throughout her career, she said, she has opened up in “poverty-stricken areas” and offered cheap child care to parents who couldn’t afford to go elsewhere.
Stokes gave a nonstop stream of profanity-laced explanations for her poor record, ticking off all the people who were out to get her: Alice Rollins, the Mobile health inspector, was “a militant atheist who hated churches.” Former employees such as Morales were “messy little bitches” who thrived on drama. Parents who complained never enrolled children in her day cares, she said.
You can go up to somebody and quote words from the Bible, but hey, Satan knows the Bible, too.”– Sara Morales
former Stokes employee
She agreed to talk more in person the following day. But she then sent us an email that said: “Do not drive, walk, jump, swim or hop on this property … your presence is NOT welcome.” When we showed up at Stokes’ day care to ask her more questions anyway, she called the police, claiming harassment. She threatened to sue if we reached out to her again.
At some point, the warehouse day care closed – records are not clear on when or why – and Stokes moved on to Foley, about 25 minutes south. That’s where she met Mike Brokowsky.
‘She gives Christianity a bad name’
Mike Brokowsky is a self-described “good-hearted Christian man” who runs a full-time ministry to help homeless families get back on their feet.
Brokowsky and his wife had run a religious day care in the ’80s, though – like many churches in Alabama – they chose to be licensed and not use the religious exemption.
When Deborah Stokes approached him in fall 2010 saying she wanted to spread the gospel to poor children, Brokowsky says he was sold. He rented Stokes his old day care building along East Myrtle Avenue.
But several Stokes employees recall nothing religious about this or any of her day cares. No Bible study. No prayers. No Christian lessons.
“She was not religious by no means,” said Brandi Riordan, former director of Stokes’ Foley day cares. “She didn’t go to church and didn’t have anything to do with a church. She lied about everything that she did.”
With the exemption, she could open up basically anywhere.”– Capt. David White
Foley police officer
Then Brokowsky heard about police activity at the day care he rented to Stokes: 16 reports in all. One mother reported to Foley police in September 2010 that the day care was in poor condition and children weren’t being fed. A former worker told police that Stokes had driven by her home after she demanded to be paid and yelled, “Fuck you, you bitch!”
Capt. David White was the Foley police officer who responded to the complaints. He said that aside from taking reports and breaking up fights, “my hands were tied.”
“With the exemption, she could open up basically anywhere,” he said. “The religious exemption law is unfortunate. It does not protect the kids; it allows for these type of day cares to open up without any restrictions.”
Riordan and other workers said the worst problems didn’t make it into police reports.
“Deborah Stokes would lock some of the children in a closet, and she would spank them and pull their hair,” Riordan said. “There were a lot of kids who got bruised. When their parents got there, she would tell their parents that the kids fell.”
Baldwin County health inspector Cathy LaSource got more complaints from parents about shoddy care. But she said she was powerless to address them and even reached out to state officials.
“I asked … if DHR (the Department of Human Resources) could investigate and take action if something wasn’t acceptable with the care,” LaSource wrote in inspection notes in fall 2010, “and (a state official) said no because she is not licensed with the state, it is a ministry sponsored day care.”
Brokowsky had heard enough.
He kicked out Stokes after she refused to pay rent. He says he learned a valuable lesson about people who “portray themselves in a facade of Christianity.”
“It’s about what people do, not what they say,” he said. “She gives Christianity a bad name. That woman is a snake in the grass.”
Starting over next to a porn shop
Deborah Stokes’ next day care popped up several months later on the other side of Foley, between a pawn shop and a porn store.
At Kids Space Day Care, posters of scantily clad women and ads for lingerie and body jewelry hung feet from where parents dropped off their toddlers. It’s illegal in Alabama for a porn store to open next to a day care. But it’s not illegal for a day care to open next to a porn shop.
The Foley City Council tried to deny Stokes a business license. There was a public meeting in July 2011 to talk about what to do about her. But Stokes hired a lawyer and appealed the council’s denial, according to city documents, saying the city had no right to regulate her church. The city’s lawyers ultimately agreed.
“We were not happy about issuing the license,” said Mayor John Koniar, “but we had no choice.”
By this point, Kimberly Nicole Hinman had lost faith that regulators in Alabama could do anything about Stokes. Hinman had worked at Kids Space for about half a year before she quit. What she says she saw Stokes do outraged her: lock disabled children in playpens for hours and slap toddler with flyswatters.
“I can’t tell you how many times I called the (Department of Human Resources) to complain,” Hinman said. “But they kept telling me that they couldn’t do anything because of the separation of church and state.”
Hinman took matters into her own hands. She started a Facebook group called Stop Debbie Stokes From Opening Another Day Care.
More than 100 parents and former employees joined the group over the course of several months, Hinman said. They posted testimonials saying Stokes never paid them or neglected their children. But after Stokes complained to Facebook that the group was harassing her, it was shut down. Parents were on their own.
Hiding behind new leadership
Marianna Autrey wished she had found the Facebook group before she had her own run-in with Deborah Stokes.
“I allowed my children to be in her care, and that was a foul on me as a mom,” she said. “Everything seemed so perfect. I asked all the right questions. But you don’t know the truth.”
Autrey enrolled her two boys – a 6-month-old and a 2-year-old – at Potter’s Mill Christian Church in Spanish Fort a few months after Stokes opened it in 2013. On paper, Stokes had nothing to do with this day care. It technically was operated by her relative Jerry Smith, who told the state that he was affiliated with Potter’s Mill Christian Church. Smith could not be reached for comment.
Like Stokes’ other properties, Potter’s Mill claimed to be a religious organization in paperwork it filed to run the day care, but it offered no obvious services and appeared to have no congregation or members.
It was Stokes who gave Autrey a tour of Potter’s Mill, promising quality Christian education. Autrey had heard about the day care from officials at the Alabama Department of Human Resources, who said Stokes’ operation accepted the federal subsidy she used to help pay for care. She took that as a stamp of approval.
Autrey soon realized that “things were way off.”
Her children’s diapers always were wet and unchanged. The lunches she packed for her boys went untouched; staff forgot to serve them. One day, a toddler poked Autrey’s infant in the eye, she said, and it later became infected. Workers didn’t notice.
Autrey filed reports with local child welfare officials. Then with the state child care licensing division. Her complaints went nowhere.
“I got really frustrated with the system,” she said. “You do something wrong in a day care and children can die. It shouldn’t be this hard to make her stop.”
Autrey withdrew her children after a few months at Potter’s Mill and organized a protest in front of the day care along with nine other parents.
“She hits the kids with flyswatters!” one protester yelled to parents dropping off their children, according to video of the event. “Puts tape over little kids’ mouths. Puts them in the high chair and leaves them for hours!”
Potter’s Mill closed in early 2015. That fall, Stokes opened her latest church day care – at least her 12th – called Little Nemo’s by the Bay. It sits atop a steep driveway along the main causeway in Spanish Fort, next to an auto repair shop.
Stokes’ reputation was well known by then. A group of concerned community members put up fliers trying to get the city zoning commission to ban her from the area. But the city said Stokes and her church were cleared to operate.
Jamie Loftin put her 10-month-old son in Little Nemo’s for one day in February. She said he’s never going back.
“It was shocking,” Loftin said. “There was no organization. Children were being left alone. I want her shut down because these kids are defenseless.”
So far, Spanish Fort police have responded to calls at Little Nemo’s from several workers claiming they haven’t been paid.
Building inspectors also are leery of Stokes, but they can’t do much. Bruce Renkert with the Spanish Fort Building Department called Stokes’ latest center “kind of nasty” but said, “She was willing to do the little we could require, so we wouldn’t run her out of town.”
Stokes continues to rely on the church she founded to operate without regulation in Alabama. To open Little Nemo’s, all she had to tell regulators was that her day care was “an integral part” of her church.
Is Deborah Stokes an anomaly? See how she fits into the national picture and read more about The God Loophole.
This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Sheela Kamath and Nikki Frick.
Amy Julia Harris can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amyjharris.