A second consecutive attempt to repeal Alabama’s religious exemption for child day care licensing fell short, but advocates still say some important progress was made at the federal and state level this year.
Since 1983, Alabama has had some type of exemption for day care facilities with a religious affiliation, allowing those exempted to bypass the licensing and inspection requirements secular day care facilities have had to meet.
The issue was highlighted last August after 5-year-old Kamden Johnson died in the care of an unlicensed facility in Mobile. Prosecutors say he passed away after being left in a parked van by 46-year-old Valarie Rena Patterson.
Patterson had been hired as a van driver by the Community Nursery and Preschool Academy despite 12 prior arrests including at least one for “negligent driving with kids in the car.” She currently faces charges for manslaughter and abuse of a corpse related to Johnson’s death.
Opponents of requiring church-based day cares like the Community Nursery Preschool Academy to obtain licenses through the Alabama Department of Human Resources (DHR) often raise concerns about limiting religious freedom.
In 2017, those concerns were enough to kill a statewide bill that would have ended the exemption. Just last week, though, a law strengthening regulation passed in the Alabama Legislature.
Sponsored by Rep. Pebblin Warren (D-Tuskegee), the Child Care Safety Act was widely supported but only after a number of concessions were made. Gov. Kay Ivey signed the bill Tuesday, ensuring all child care centers in Alabama will face some requirements through DHR. However, it still won’t require those with a religious affiliation to obtain the same license as by secular facilities.
According to DHR Spokesman Barry Spear, the law will require that all child care centers provide DHR with documentation showing proof of local fire and health inspections and to ensure all of their employees have undergone criminal background checks.
For the first time, day cares with a religious exemption would have to post a sign visibly indicating that status. Those facilities still wouldn’t be required to follow regulations for the transportation of children, staff-to-child ratios or the qualifications of employees.
The advocacy group Voices for Alabama’s Children supported Warren’s bill this year and a similar piece of legislation last year in hopes of removing the religious day care exemption altogether. Rhonda Mann, the group’s interim executive director, said the organization was glad to see tougher regulations passed but believes lawmakers could have done more.
“What we’ve wanted from the beginning is to remove the licensing exemption for all child care centers. We’re one of only seven states that allow broad-based exemptions from child care licensing,” Mann said. “That’s what we wanted to see in this year’s legislation, but once a bill is introduced, it’s up to lawmakers to decide, and this is the bill they came up with.”
Another notable change under the law is a requirement for all child care centers in Alabama — regardless of religious affiliation — to obtain a state license if they serve children whose families receive any federal subsidies. Spear said that strengthened an existing federal requirement that day cares receiving subsidies undergo DHR health and safety inspections.
“All of those centers have been visited and they should know what they need to do to meet licensing standards,” he said. “Based on the last numbers I was given, there will now be about 396 facilities that will require licensing, but statewide there are over 950 exempted centers. So, there will still be more than 500 centers that won’t have any licensing at all.”
That federal requirement applies to all centers, even if they’re only serving one child whose family receives federal subsidies. Because of that, Mann said she’s worried some centers that were receiving those funds may opt to “no longer provide care for those children.”
The bill also provides some leeway for previously unlicensed day care centers to obtain licenses more easily by allowing them avoid some state regulations. Specifically, it gives those facilities 90 days to “come into compliance with all licensing requirements” with the exception of standards for their “physical building design, size, and fixtures.”
The provision was included to make voluntarily licensing more appealing to religious-based centers, but Spear said it’s also caused some concern at DHR because some of those regulations are enforced to ensure children’s safety and wellbeing.
Those include requirements like having enough toilets for the number of children or making sure door handles are placed high enough so small children can’t reach them. Because the federal government requires similar building standards, there’s also a concern exempted facilities could be prevented from caring for children who receive subsidies.
Though it’s unclear how the Child Care Safety Act might affect the total number of unlicensed day cares in Alabama, Mann said recent data suggests an upward trend. In Mobile County alone there are 135 licensed centers and 125 unlicensed centers today, according to DHR statistics.
It took two years to pass Warren’s bill, and Mann credited statewide media coverage of religious exemption laws and incidents like Johnson’s death for keeping the issue in the public eye. Calls for stricter child care regulation haven’t been confined to the state level, though.
In fact, the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending package signed by President Donald Trump last week included an amendment from Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D-Alabama), that will prohibit any federal funding from going to child care centers deemed to be unsafe.
In a news release announcing its passing, Sewell said her amendment would keep taxpayer dollars from going to day cares “with a history of health and safety violations.” She also said Johnson’s death last August spurred her to take action on the issue from Washington D.C.
“We very much appreciate Rep. Sewell for paying attention and elevating this conversation to a national level,” Mann said. “We’re only one of seven, but for those states still struggling to bring oversight and regulation to the industry, perhaps some of things we’re doing can be helpful.”
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