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There are a dozen places near my house in Birmingham, Alabama, where I could send my toddler while I'm working. The city's main drags are dotted with daycares in strip malls and squat cinder block buildings with barbed-wire surrounding the playgrounds. In swankier neighborhoods, there are places like the gothic Presbyterian church where moms in athleisure-wear drop their babes off while a security guard watches.
Most of these places, though, are run without any oversight. Thanks to the state's religious exemption law, half of Alabama's daycares operate without state licensing.
Alabama has what's called a dual daycare system where licensed daycares must meet basic standards: facility safety inspections, staff background checks and educational requirements, and teacher-to-pupil ratios, among other stipulations. Daycares that claim religious exemption, meanwhile, are free to operate without any state oversight. That's about to change.
On March 27, Gov. Kay Ivey signed HB76 (or the Child Care Safety Act) into law, mandating that all daycares receiving federal subsidies meet Alabama Department of Human Resources (DHR) licensing requirements. Sponsored by Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, the bill was watered down from an original attempt to require all daycares to be licensed. Despite the concession, Warren told local media the new law would make a difference.
One reason GOP lawmakers and church lobbyists fought for the religious exemption to remain intact was to prevent the state from banning church lessons at daycare. Such a ban, though, was explicitly outlawed in HB76. Five other states in the U.S. allow church-affiliated daycares to go unregulated, while 10 states offer limited oversight.
Barry Spear, communications director for DHR, said the new law will affect 396 centers, but he expects about 500 centers will continue to operate without state oversight. "Anything we can do to strengthen the accountability of childcare centers is good for children," Spear said in a recent phone interview.
Since last August, when a new federal rule prompted safety inspections at daycares receiving federal funds, DHR has inspected every subsidized daycare that was previously exempt from such oversight. Inside, Spear said they found everything from rusty playground equipment to exposed live wires. "We've had to tell people to put medicine out of reach from children. Basic things you'd do to childproof your own home," Spear said.
Because there's no requirement to report enrollment, Spear said no one knows how many Alabama children attend the religious-exempt facilities or the demographic breakdown of those student populations. What we do know is that many children, mostly Black kids in low-income neighborhoods, have been harmed under the so-called care of these centers.
Inside the daycares DHR inspected, they found everything from rusty playground equipment to exposed live wires.
Last May in Mobile, a 5-year-old boy named Kamden Johnson died when his daycare driver left him in a van in 90-degree heat. The driver, who would be ineligible to work at a licensed daycare based on details of her criminal record and qualifications, abandoned his body in a neighbor's driveway. In 2015, a staph outbreak at Sunnyside Childcare Center in Montgomery sickened 86 children, ranging from 1 to 12-years-old. The description from a grandmother entering the facility on the afternoon of the outbreak, as reported by Anna Claire Vollers for AL.com, reads like a scene in a horror movie: a darkened room full of children, rolling on the floor in pain, covered in vomit and diarrhea. No employee had contacted parents or called 911.
Though both of these daycares were unlicensed because of religious exemption, neither is clearly affiliated with a particular church. That's because the law allowing exemption doesn't define what counts as church affiliation, according to Spear. "They used to send us a letter on church letterhead stating they were exempt," he said. "They were responsible for doing their own background checks, which didn't happen. There was no way for us to verify if it'd be done or not."
No one knows how many Alabama children attend the religious-exempt facilities…what we do know is that many children, mostly Black kids in low-income neighborhoods, have been harmed.
Under the the new law, both of these daycares will be verified by DHR, because they both receive federal subsidies. In fact, the year of the staph outbreak, Sunnyside's parent nonprofit, United Family Services Outreach, received more than $1.7 million in federal subsidies. These subsidies made up the bulk of the organization's budget for running four daycare facilities, and yet the director received $1.33 million in compensation, making him one of the highest paid nonprofit officials in the state that year. Cutting corners to inflate administrative salaries is one way daycare operators stand to benefit from a lack of regulation.
Daycares that have to meet the new licensing requirements have until August of 2019 to make necessary changes and file paperwork. The 500 daycares that retain religious-exempt status will continue to operate without any oversight.
A full list of DHR's safety and health requirements can be read here.