Physically disciplining children is outlawed in almost all day cares in America. But at least four states offer an exception for religious providers: In North Carolina, Indiana, Alabama and Missouri, those day care workers may use corporal punishment as long as they warn parents. Credit: <a href="http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-460606p1.html">Ilya Andriyanov</a>/Shutterstock

Across the country, children suffered extreme punishments in the name of God.

In Alabama, children were whipped with belts and locked in closets for so long that they peed their pants.

A boy in North Carolina was beaten so badly that bruises mottled his backside. Toddlers in Missouri regularly were struck with a paddle emblazoned with Bible verses from Proverbs: “Withhold not correction from a child, for if you beat him with a rod he shall not die.”

At another church day care in Missouri, children received a painful “banana pinch,” designed to leave no trace.

At the Twin Rivers Worship Center’s day care in St. Louis, workers disciplined children with a “banana pinch” – a twist between the crease of the upper thigh and butt cheek designed to leave no trace.Credit: Allison McCartney for Reveal Credit: Allison McCartney for Reveal

Physically punishing children is outlawed in almost all day cares in America. But at least four states offer an exception for religious providers: In North Carolina, Indiana, Alabama and Missouri, those day care workers may slap and spank children as long as they warn parents.

But an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found that hundreds of religious day cares exploited corporal punishment rules. In case after case, they downplayed to parents how harshly children would be disciplined, disregarded parents’ edicts against physical punishment or lied about policies and practices. Regulators often were powerless to address the problems.

Typically, parents did not realize the truth until their kids came home with unexplained injuries.

The God Loophole

When Kristy Guetterman got the call in 2013 from Missouri child welfare officials, she was in shock. They told her that they had reason to believe her 4-year-old daughter, Abigail, had been abused.

Workers said Abigail was locked in a pitch-black room by her day care director as punishment for having an asthma attack, according to the officials’ investigation notes. The workers also said Kathy McFall, the director, frequently flicked children in the face when they spoke too loudly and would drag Abigail into her office by her wrists. One worker worried that the treatment might qualify as child abuse.

At a day care in Mobile, Ala., children were locked in closets for so long that they peed their pants. Credit: Allison McCartney for Reveal Credit: Allison McCartney

Guetterman told investigators that she had noticed marks and bruises on Abigail’s wrists and upper arms for at least a month. But she had assumed the marks were caused by other children. After all, the day care center, which is part of Twin Rivers Worship Center in St. Louis, had explicitly told Guetterman in the discipline policy she signed: “WE DO NOT: spank, shake, bite, pinch, push, pull, slap or otherwise physically punish the children.”

“You put more faith in the church, and then you see people do that to an innocent child,” Guetterman said. “As a Christian, it’s hard to understand how people could go to church on Sunday and then do such horrible things.”

McFall seemed to be conscious that parents would disapprove of the punishments, workers told the state. She advised them to turn their backs to the windows whenever they flicked children in the face. She also taught them her signature banana pinch – a twist between the crease of the upper thigh and butt cheek that she said “won’t leave a mark” for parents to discover later.

The church didn’t respond to calls for comment, but in a letter, the day care center promised parents that it was “committed to the well-being of all the children entrusted to our care.” McFall resigned after the allegations came to light. She could not be reached for comment.

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Missouri regulators investigated what happened to Abigail, but there was little they could do. At a secular day care, officials could have banned staff from laying a hand on children. At Twin Rivers’ day care – as at the 500 other religious day cares in Missouri – they could ask the facility only to be honest with parents about the discipline policy.

 Indiana parents complained more than 200 times about overly harsh discipline at religious day cares from 2007 to 2014. They often cited worrisome specifics: Their children were hit in the face, had their faces smashed into concrete or were punched in the chest. But time and again, state child care officials demurred.

“Discipline,” their responses routinely stated, “is not regulated in a ministry.”

The situation was similar in Alabama, where Reveal reviewed 52 corporal punishment complaints lodged against religious day cares in the state’s two largest counties between 2010 and 2014. In 15 percent of the incidents, children allegedly were hit, punched and slapped so hard that they developed bruises or welts – marks that investigators consider warning signs of abuse and neglect.

At nonreligious facilities, Alabama’s child care division could have thoroughly investigated any of these complaints. In these cases, state child care officials had no jurisdiction to even take a look.

Starting over as a religious day care

What could get you shut down at a secular day care may be protected as a religious liberty at a faith-based one. That’s what happened to Maymie Page.

In the ’90s, Page operated a secular day care in North Carolina, where she wasn’t allowed to use any type of corporal punishment, even if her Christian faith encouraged it. But she didn’t let that get in her way.

She ran into legal problems in 1997 for being too rough with children and again in 1999 after she smacked a child in the head. She was arrested the following year after she pulled down a boy’s pants in front of his classmates and spanked him so hard on his bottom and arms that he developed bruises and welts.

Children have been hit with belts, paddles, rulers, large paint sticks and flyswatters at various religious day cares in the U.S.Credit: Allison McCartney for Reveal Credit: Allison McCartney

That was too much for North Carolina day care regulators. The state used its ultimate weapon and revoked Page’s day care license in May 2000, saying that “children were getting hurt on a regular basis,” according to a news release.

Page soon found a workaround.

Eight months after the state shut her down, Page requested permission to reopen her day care as a religious one, affiliated with the church where her husband was a pastor, Faith Tabernacle Holiness Church of God in Winston-Salem.

Now that Page’s day care is recognized as religious, it has the state’s blessing to spank children – the very offense that shut her down in the first place.

Reached by phone recently, Page declined to answer questions, saying, “Why would I jeopardize my license talking to you?”

But even though corporal punishment is legal at Page’s new day care, the punishments have veered toward abuse, according to parents. In 2013, there were reports that children had been bruised by harsh beatings. Ten years earlier, state licensing officials had received complaints that Page’s staff pinched children and slapped them on the hand.

Investigators looked into the allegations but could not verify any of them. Page denied that her workers ever used corporal punishment, even though her policy listed it as an option.

You whip them to correct them, to help them.”– The Rev. Donnie Oates

Page’s day care is one of 14 religious facilities in North Carolina that still elect to employ physical discipline, according to documents from the state. The practice has fallen out of favor since the state took steps to ensure child safety in 1984.

At that time, Lucy Bode was chairwoman of the North Carolina Day Care Commission. After reports of out-of-control spanking, the commission decided to ban physical punishment in all day cares.

“Some of these punishments we were hearing about were so draconian,” Bode said in a recent interview. “And I just thought, ‘These are defenseless children. How can we allow for this kind of thing to happen in a civilized society?’ ”

The Rev. Donnie Oates, a pastor of Vandalia Baptist Church in Greensboro, was vehemently against the spanking ban, viewing it as government overreach into a religious issue. So he and a handful of other pastors continued to use corporal punishment.

“You whip them to correct them, to help them,” Oates, who died several years ago, told The New York Times in 1986. “I have seen it work. I know it works.”

Even when the state threatened to close day cares that continued to spank children, Oates and other pastors held firm.

After a long fight, a compromise was reached: While spanking was banned at all licensed day cares, religious ones could continue to use physical punishment, as long as state regulators approved their discipline policies.

Churches in North Carolina now have to follow state guidelines stating that if they physically punish children, they must do so in a “nurturing and appropriate manner.” And child care regulators can investigate all day cares for complaints about inappropriate discipline.

North Carolina is also unique in that it makes its abuse investigations public, offering a window into how state regulators distinguish between corporal punishment and child abuse.

Often, that line can be razor thin.

‘Five licks with the paddle’

On Aug. 10, 2005, a boy at Tabernacle Christian Day Care in Monroe, North Carolina, spat in another child’s face. Pastor Scott Couick called the 11-year-old boy into his office. He attended the church’s after-school program.  

Couick got down on his knees and told the boy to lie face down on the floor in front of him. Couick then picked up a piece of wood about a foot long and hit him with it, according to the investigative report.

He gave the boy “ ‘five licks’ with the paddle,” investigators said. After the second strike, the child began crying and promised to behave. Couick hit the boy several more times. Then he prayed with him.

But what had been routine at Tabernacle Christian soon made its way to authorities. Couick left large bruises on the boy’s backside, roughly the size and shape of the paddle. Couick did not respond to calls for comment.

Child abuse officials investigated and decided that the paddling met the legal standard of child neglect. In October 2005, Tabernacle Christian paid a $500 civil penalty.

The boy’s parents later told investigators that while they had agreed to the day care’s corporal punishment policy, they didn’t realize their son would be spanked so hard that it would leave serious bruises.

This wasn’t the first time the church’s corporal punishment became too violent.

Parents at Tabernacle Christian complained at least five times in 2000 that punishments went too far. They said their children were rapped with rulers, thrown to the ground and slapped on the hands when they asked for more food, according to licensing complaints.

Those problems, along with a litany of other issues, led the North Carolina child care licensing division to shut down Tabernacle Christian in April 2002. But the church appealed the decision with the licensing division and came up with an agreement that allowed it to continue running a day care.

After the 2005 paddling incident, Tabernacle Christian revised its discipline policy. Couick and other church workers no longer would spank children, they decided. Rather, parents would come to the day care and spank their own children whenever problems arose.

But if parents opted in, the center told parents that it still would use a “hot hand” on their children – a series of raps on the palm, the number depending on the child’s age.

Workers at Tabernacle Christian Day Care in Monroe, N.C., would use a “hot hand” ­– a series of raps on the palm, the number depending on the child’s age. A “pop” was a tap on either the back or front of the hand. Credit: Allison McCartney for Reveal Credit: Allison McCartney

Even the hot hand got out of hand.

On June 18, 2007, a 2-year-old named Christian threw a temper tantrum and was kicking and screaming, according to licensing notes.

Christian’s caregiver, Laura McLaughlin, was unable to control him, so she gave him a hot hand. Children between 1 and 2 years old were supposed to receive one “pop” on the palm, according to the day care’s discipline policy. But McLaughlin hit Christian four times on his fist, then three times on his open palm.

Christian’s mother, Christina – records don’t list her last name – worked at Tabernacle Christian. She heard from other employees that her son had been hit and immediately checked on him. He had red marks on his wrist.

“Christina was really upset because she said it was not the first time this had happened to him,” a worker at the day care wrote in a letter to the director.

McLaughlin said she would “never hurt any child in any way.”

State child abuse investigators later determined that McLaughlin’s actions amounted to child neglect.

“When Ms. McLaughlin administered corporal punishment that was more harsh than is allowed by the center’s discipline policy, she did not attend to the child in a nurturing and appropriate manner,” according to investigator notes.

How can we allow for this kind of thing to happen in a civilized society?”– Lucy Bode
former chairwoman, North Carolina Day Care Commission

Tabernacle Christian paid a $500 civil penalty in November 2007. McLaughlin was suspended by the church for one and a half days for violating the discipline policy. As of last year, she still was working at the day care. McLaughlin could not be reached for comment.

Tony Mangum, the day care’s current director, declined to comment on the paddling and hot hand incidents, saying they occurred before he was in charge. But he stressed that the church’s corporal punishment policy is safe for kids.

If state officials thought corporal punishments were “cruel, unusual, or abusive upon review, I am quite certain they would not approve such a policy,” Mangum wrote in an email.

Tabernacle Christian continues to use the hot hand today – and that’s fine with parent Bonnie McMurray, whose three children attend the day care. She was raised by devout Christians who believed in corporal punishment’s power to teach children right from wrong and uses it on her own children.

“The idea of corporal punishment getting out of hand is just not there,” she said. “I’m sure there are people who have abused it, but so much of it is about the attitude of the person doing it. I know the day care workers here love my children, so it makes no difference to me if they pop them on the hand.”

Part 3: Dangerous day care owners discovered that finding religion, at least on paper, could give them a second chance.

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.