In 16 states, religious day cares are exempt from at least some regulations. Credit: Scott Pham/Reveal

Enraged by the recent death of a young boy at an unlicensed church day care, lawmakers across Alabama are reviving a failed push to license religious day cares, saying the cost to children is too high.

“I strongly favor that if you’re going to be a day care center for children, you need to be licensed by the state,“ Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey told reporters. “Any child that’s in the care of a day care center, that center needs to be licensed to ensure that we’ve got quality folks rendering quality service to protect our children.”

On Aug. 21, Kamden Johnson hopped into a van at Community Church Ministries in Mobile. The van driver, Valarie Patterson, had an extensive criminal record. She was supposed to be taking the children to another of the day care’s locations, but Kamden never made it. Hours later, the 5-year-old’s body was found dumped in a driveway near bushes.

Police arrested Patterson, and prosecutors have accused her of leaving the boy in the sweltering van on a day when temperatures soared into the 90s and then trying to dispose of his body after he had died. Patterson was charged with manslaughter and abuse of a corpse.

“As you can imagine, our family is simply devastated,” Kamden’s family said in a statement through their attorney. “There are really no words that can describe or express the loss that we have suffered.”

The death reverberated across Alabama, coming just months after lawmakers failed to pass a bipartisan bill that would have increased standards and oversight for all religious day cares in the state.

“It was a serious feeling of hurt and disappointment that we allowed an issue of that magnitude to go undealt with in the Alabama Legislature,” said Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee. “If we let this loophole stay in, we’re going to have even more problems.”

Last session, Warren introduced a bill that called for licensing the more than 900 religious day cares in the state that operate without oversight in response to an investigation by Reveal. But after pushback from church groups, she scaled back her bill to push for inspections of all such day cares and require only day cares that receive state or federal funding to become licensed.

The compromise bill passed the Alabama House of Representatives, but the reform effort died at the 11th hour in the Senate, after several lawmakers gave in to intense pressure by a handful of conservative religious groups that argued that the government should stay out of church matters.

Alabama currently has almost no requirements for nearly half of the state’s day care facilities. Religious day cares don’t have to train their workers in CPR, hire a minimum number of workers, adhere to child-to-staff ratios, conduct criminal background checks of all employees or be regularly inspected.

While the government has no say in how these day cares are run, Reveal found that these religious day cares amassed more than $123 million in federal child care funding from 2011 to 2014.

Parents’ complaints reveal the resulting horror stories: a disabled girl left to soak in her own vomit until her mother arrived, a 6-year-old trampled so hard by an older classmate that he sustained a brain injury and a young girl so poorly supervised that she was bitten 300 times by fire ants.

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 had bruises and welts.

At licensed day cares, the state Department of Human Resources could have thoroughly investigated these issues. But at church day cares, state officials had no authority to even take a look.

Unscrupulous day care operators with questionable religious credentials flocked to the exemption. At least 13 day care operators in the state lost their licenses from 2004 to 2014; Reveal found three that reopened as religious entities to continue their day care businesses.

Kamden’s mother, Jasmyn Johnson, has filed a lawsuit against Community Church Ministries Inc., alleging negligence and wantonness at the unlicensed day care. The suit accuses the religious facility of failing to ensure safety standards and properly screen workers.

Community Church Ministries hired Patterson even though she had a substantial criminal history, including theft charges, negligent driving with children in a car and fugitive-from-justice charges, according to prosecutors.

Under current state law, criminal background checks are optional at religious day cares in Alabama.

This wasn’t the first time Community Church Ministries was accused of putting children in danger, according to complaints obtained by Reveal. In April 2011, a worker left children unsupervised in a van while while she shopped, according to one complainant, who added that the woman had done so routinely. “She sometimes shops as long as 45 minutes.” 

Another complaint in 2011 alleged that a worker pulled a 9-year-old girl’s arm so hard that it became dislocated. It’s unclear whether state regulators or local law enforcement investigated either of those complaints.

Kamden’s death spurred the Mobile City Council to pass a unanimous resolution calling for all day cares in the state to be licensed and church workers to be subject to the same criminal background checks as other day care workers.

Child care advocates also said the tenor of the conversation about religious day cares is changing in Alabama.

We have gotten calls and emails from folks urging us to go full throttle to protect every child everywhere no matter what,” said Melanie Bridgeforth, executive director of Voices for Alabama’s Children. “We have major people calling out from the top to the bottom, saying that we have an issue here that we need to deal with. Lawmakers are seeing that.”

Warren said she plans to reintroduce a bill in the January legislative session to abolish the religious exemption and require all day cares in the state to be licensed. It will be the third time in recent years that an Alabama legislator has introduced such a bill.

“I’ve got a second wind,” Warren said. “I’m hoping and praying that there’s not one legislator who wants to see another child die.”

Amy Julia Harris can be reached at aharris@revealnews.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.