Lawmaker wants faith-based day-care centres regulated
Aggressive lobbying by Christian organisations in Alabama in the 1980s made it possible for faith-based day-care centres to operate free of regulation – often with disastrous consequences.
One woman determined to end this shocking state of affairs is lawmaker Patricia Todd, above, who is introducing a bill to to abolish the religious exemption.
Todd – a Democrat and Alabama’s first openly gay legislator – said her bill would seek to licence more than 900 religious day-cares in the state that currently operate without a licence and with almost no government control.
We’ve let church day-cares go unregulated for far too long, and a lot of damage has been done.
Melanie Bridgeforth, Executive Director of Voices for Alabama’s Children, an advocacy group that has pushed for increased day care standards, said this will be the first time a lawmaker in Alabama has introduced legislation to abolish the religious exemption.
This is a huge deal. I think that many will try to paint this issue as a faith or religious issue, and it couldn’t be further from that. Any entity that is caring for children should be regulated by the state in some way.
Sixteen American states have carved out exceptions for faith-based day-cares, leading children in several states to be neglected, abused and even killed. Alabama has almost no requirements for religious day-cares, meaning half of the day-care facilities in the state operate with little control and are not required to follow state standards regarding worker training or supervision or adhere to any staff-to-child ratios.
This is of little concern to Robin Mears, Executive Director of the Alabama Christian Education Association, a group that supports the religious exemption. He said regulation is unnecessary at church day-cares because most facilities answer to a higher authority than the state: God.
This absence of regulation enabled Deborah Stokes, inset, to operate a string of “disastrous” Christian day-cares all over southern Alabama for years.
According to this report, she began opening day-cares 14 years ago in Saraland, Alabama. Just weeks into her new venture, authorities discovered she was keeping children in a building that didn’t meet basic health and safety standards. Stokes was arrested for child endangerment, criminally charged, and later convicted. She also was banned from operating a day-care for two years.
But she was soon back at it. She opened a day-care in a decrepit warehouse that one worker described as a “house out of a horror movie”. Another was next to a porn store. Parents and workers have reported Stokes for abuse and neglect – hitting kids with flyswatters, locking them in closets, rapping them with rulers, and failing to pay employees.
Police, county health officials, city council members, building inspectors, former employees and upset parents have tried to take action, but they can’t seem to stop Stokes. When she’s forced to close one of her day-cares, she just opens another in a neighboring town.
In 2006, the Alabama Department of Human Resources didn’t verify the safety requirements of one of her day-cares in Mobile, because they trusted that churches would tell the truth about complying with the law.
Investigators could find no evidence that Stokes’s church – Alpha and Omega Christian Church Ministries – holds services or performs outreach. An investigation also found at least 80 daycare operators who suddenly decided to identify as religious after regulators tried to shut them down.
Currently, Stokes is running a church day-care called Little Nemo’s, next to an auto repair shop. This is at least her 12th operation. All she had to do to open her doors was tell regulators was that her day-care was “an integral part” of her church.
Freedom from regulation has not stopped religious day cares from collecting millions of dollars in federal funding. From 2011 to 2014, unlicenced church day- cares in Alabama have amassed more than $123 million through the federal child care subsidy programme without having to follow any rules to receive those dollars.