By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
A bill that would revoke the exemption status of non-profit religious day cares and bring them under the oversight of Department of Human Resources health and safety regulations passed out of committee Tuesday.
The move marks the legislation’s first approval in the sometimes lengthy process. It’ll need to be approved by the House, a Senate committee and the full Senate before making its way to the governor’s desk.
The bill, pushed for a second year by Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, would give DHR more regulatory power and require that previously exempt day cares begin registering with DHR. The House Children and Senior Advocacy Committee voted unanimously to move the bill out of committee.
It could be on the House floor in the next few weeks.
“We have allowed conditions to exist in our day cares that are harmful and detrimental to our children,” Warren told the Alabama Political Reporter. “This bill is about the health and safety of children.”
Warren introduced the bill after a string of incidents including the death and injury of several children in unregulated, church-affiliated day cares. After the bill failed in last year’s legislative session, a 5-year-old boy, Kamden Johnson, was found dead, lying on the side of the road three miles from his Mobile-area day care, Community Nursery & Preschool Academy on Hillcrest Road, in August.
A day care van driver charged with the child’s death, Valarie Patterson, had a long criminal record — including a charge of negligent driving with children in her car — dating back more than 25 years. Johnson had been left in a van for hours in 90-degree weather, investigators found.
Inspectors later found 23 instances of non-compliance at the unlicensed, unregulated, church-affiliated day care, where, under current Alabama law, facilities and the employees there were exempt from regulations and licensing requirements typical non-religious day cares must follow.
More than 80 children became ill with staph at the Montgomery Sunny Side day care facility in 2015 after they ate food that day care staff left out overnight. In another incident, a South Alabama woman opened several religious day cares despite accusations of abuse and child neglect.
Alabama law as it stands allows those day cares that are affiliated with churches and other religious groups to apply for exemptions to licensing requirements. While those unregulated day cares are required to follow health department safety regulations, they aren’t otherwise subject to oversight or inspection by the Department of Human Resources.
DHR typically inspects day cares to ensure they meet minimum staff qualifications, criminal background check and training requirements, insurance, staff-to-child ratios, minimum facility and equipment safety standards and health inspections. Religious day cares were previously exempt from those DHR regulations.
About half of nearly 2,000 day cares in Alabama claim this religious exemption.
“All of these older members in the Legislature know that there has been a problem but no one has been bold enough to challenge it,” Warren said.
Warren had to compromise extensively with Republican lawmakers and church groups who were concerned that the bill would infringe upon the religious rights of church-affiliated day cares. Her initial bill would have required state licenses for all day cares in Alabama.
“The church groups fought, fought, fought,” Warren said. “But this has nothing to do with your teaching. It has only to do with the health and safety of children.”
After negotiations, Warren agreed to change her bill. It will now only require DHR licenses for religiously affiliated day cares that receive federal funds, operate for profit, receive state funds or care for children receiving federal child care subsidies. Others that don’t fit those requirements will remain exempt from licensing requirements but will still be inspected yearly.
While most were in support of the bill, some representatives from religious groups still raised objections at a long public hearing on Tuesday.
“Our concern about this bill is that it is the foot in the door that leads to further regulation,” said John Eidsmoe, an attorney with Roy and Kayla Moore’s Foundation for Moral Law.
The federal government in August began requiring DHR inspections for religious day cares receiving federal funds, just days before the 5-year-old child from Mobile died at Community Nursery & Preschool Academy. Since beginning the inspections, DHR has found more than 15,00-plus non-compliance items in the exempt day cares.
“We’ll have to really deal with this some more because there are now day cares that are getting federal dollars and didn’t come up to standards in inspecction who no longer want the federal funding,” Warren said. “They’re going to keep doing what they want without inspections.”
Even without inspections, licensing and stricter oversight, the remaining exempt day cares will still be required to file annual reports on insurances, criminal back ground checks, fire inspections and health inspections. The day cares will also be required to communicate with parents that the facility is operating unlicensed.
“This is just a first step,” Warren said. “More work needs to be done.”
The bill could be on the House floor within weeks. It passed the House but died in the Senate before it received a vote as the Legislature reached the end of its legislative session, engrossed in redistricting fights.
“I sat up here and pleaded with them that we do this, but by August, I was going to the funeral for the child in Mobile,” Warren said. “They would have definitely not had that person convicted of a felony working in a day care, who basically threw the body of that baby away.”
But Warren said she has a positive outlook on the bill’s chances this session.
“Everybody in this chamber, more than anything, has a heart that they need to examine,” Warren said. “This is not about anything other than making sure that there are some good standards for day cares throughout the state.”