Wyatt Park Baptist Church's day care in Missouri publicly told parents that it didn't use physical discipline. But workers reported that staff would smack children and dig their fingernails into toddlers’ feet until they screamed, according to investigation notes. Credit: Allison McCartney/Reveal

Corporal punishment is banned in most day cares across America. But four states have carved out exceptions for religious day cares. In North Carolina, Alabama, Missouri and Indiana, church day cares may physically punish children in accordance with their religious beliefs. But when workers don’t spare the rod, children can be hurt in ways that child welfare regulators consider abuse and neglect, licensing and other records show. Here are some of the ways we found children were punished.

At 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. The church day care had told parents that children wouldn’t be physically disciplined.

Children in many states were whipped with belts and hit with paddles. The beatings often left bruises. 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.”

In Alabama, parents reported that children were locked in closets for so long that they peed their pants. In Missouri, investigators found that day care workers put a 4-year-old girl in a dark room by herself for coughing.

At Tabernacle Christian Day Care in North Carolina, children were punished for misbehavior with a “hot hand” – a series of raps on the palm. In Alabama, children were struck on both sides of the hand with rulers and flyswatters.

Workers at Wyatt Park Baptist Church’s day care in Missouri said staff would smack children and dig their fingernails into toddlers’ feet until they screamed. Parents were unaware of the punishments.

Illustrations by Allison McCartney/Reveal

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


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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.