Deborah Stokes opened Kids Space Day Care next to a porn store in Foley. 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. Credit: Carmen K. Sisson for Reveal

An Alabama lawmaker has introduced a bill to license the more than 900 religious day cares in the state that currently operate with almost no government oversight.

Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, introduced House Bill 548 on Tuesday. It is the first legislation of its kind aimed at abolishing Alabama’s longtime exemption for faith-based day cares. Todd said she was spurred to action after reports from Reveal that detailed serious abuses of the law.

“I was appalled that you could operate a child care facility without a license and that you’re exempt from state regulations,” she said. “We’re talking about what’s in the best interest of children. This has got to stop.”

Alabama is one of 16 states that exempts faith-based day cares from certain licensing rules. Religious groups in the 1980s pushed Alabama lawmakers to exempt the day cares from regulation, arguing that inspections and standards would violate the separation of church and state.

As a result, Alabama has almost no requirements for nearly half of the state’s day care facilities. Churches don’t have to train their workers, hire a minimum number of staff or be regularly inspected. Fire and health inspectors are supposed to clear church day cares to operate, but no state regulators ensure that those inspections have been completed.

A Reveal investigation found that freedom from oversight can lead to serious problems. In Alabama’s two largest counties, parents complained more than 50 times from 2010 to 2014 that their children were hit, slapped and punched at religious day cares – often so hard that they sustained bruises and welts. At nonreligious facilities, Alabama’s child care division could have thoroughly investigated any of these complaints. In these cases, state officials had no jurisdiction to even take a look.

Unscrupulous day care operators also flocked to the religious exemption. One woman ran at least a dozen problematic religious day cares out of reach of regulators by declaring herself a church. She, like many other government-free day care operators, received federal child care subsidies. Other secular day care operators in the state that were shut down for putting children at risk reopened as religious entities.

Todd’s bill would remove all the exemptions for church day cares, and require them to follow the same standards as their secular counterparts: adhere to staff-to-child ratios, train their workers and be regularly inspected. She acknowledges that her bill – introduced just days before the end of this session – has little chance of passing this session. But she hopes it will spark a discussion and set the stage for future bills.

“This is an issue that is going to take a lot of courage,” said Melanie Bridgeforth, executive director of Voices for Alabama’s Children, a child care advocacy group that has pushed to overturn the religious exemption. “It’s going to take political will. We want to do it right.”

Amy Julia Harris can be reached at aharris@cironline.org. Follow her on Twitter: @amyjharris.

 

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.