Religious Day Cares Get Freedom from Oversight, with Tragic Results

By Amy Julia Harris
Reveal: The Center for Investigative Reporting
April 12, 2016

The God Loophole: Thousands of religious day cares across America legally are allowed to run their facilities with little government oversight. But freedom from regulation can come at a high price for children. And when things go wrong, parents have little recourse.

Like many parents, when Juan Cardenas began looking for a day care for his 1-year-old son, Carlos, he relied on word-of-mouth. A friend recommended Praise Fellowship Assembly of God in Indianapolis.

Cardenas never had planned to put his baby in day care, so he didn’t know the questions to ask. He just knew Praise Fellowship was a church. He is devoutly Catholic, so he trusted that.

“I thought they were going to do a good job because they served God,” he said.

Almost immediately, Cardenas noticed things were amiss. One day, he arrived to pick up Carlos and found the children waiting in the dark. When he asked why, someone at the day care threw the question back at him: “Do you want to pay for the lights?”

That’s when Cardenas decided Praise Fellowship wasn’t going to work out after all. He found another day care in the area, and Carlos was set to start the next week.

He never made it.

On Feb. 22, 2012, Juan Cardenas got a call from his girlfriend with disturbing news: Their 1-year-old son, Carlos, was missing at his Indianapolis church day care.

What happened next wasn’t an inexplicable tragedy. An investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found it might have been an avoidable disaster.

On Feb. 22, 2012, as Cardenas sat at his desk at a medical lab, his cellphone rang. It was his girlfriend, Maricela Serna, with disturbing news: The church had called. Their son was missing.

“Is that even possible?” Cardenas thought as he called the day care. A worker told him to calm down. They were looking for Carlos.

The day care was understaffed that day – with only four or five workers caring for at least 50 children – and somehow, the women in charge lost track of Carlos. A supervisor later admitted that “there was no system to know where each child was supposed to be and which staff member they were supposed to be with.”

This isn’t about religion and people’s faith. It’s about common sense and protecting children.”

– Gail Piggott

Alabama Partnership for Children

At most day cares across the country, workers are required to always be within sight and sound of the children. But Praise Fellowship wasn’t like most day cares. Because it’s attached to a church, it is absolved from most of the rules designed to keep kids safe.

Sixteen states have carved out exceptions for some faith-based day cares. Freedoms vary from state to state, ranging from the minor, such as waiving a registration fee, to the extreme, where religious day cares aren’t licensed and follow virtually no rules.

Six states are particularly hands off: Alabama, Indiana, Missouri, Florida, North Carolina and Virginia offer religious day cares the most leeway.

Religious groups in these states have argued successfully that regulating their day cares violates the separation of church and state. The religious exemption has become increasingly popular in places where churches most adamantly reject government interference: In Alabama and Indiana, records show almost every other day care is exempt.

Religious advocates suggest parents need not worry about the lack of oversight because day cares are guided by a moral authority that eclipses any regulatory agency.

“We feel like our responsibility for the well-being of those kids is to God,” said Robin Mears, executive director of the Alabama Christian Education Association, which pushed for that state’s religious exemption in the 1980s. “We’re going to answer to him.”

Horrible accidents can and do happen in licensed day cares. But unlicensed religious facilities are off limits to most government regulators, and when problems do arise, parents may have little recourse. Without rules, none have been broken.

Religious day cares get freedoms that are unthinkable at their secular counterparts. At some, workers don’t have to know CPR or have any child safety training. At others, they can whip and spank children. Still others, like Carlos’ day care, do not require workers to be able to see and hear the children they are paid to watch.

The religious exemption baffles child care experts. Gail Piggott with the Alabama Partnership for Children has been fighting to regulate religious day cares for years.

“This isn’t about religion and people’s faith,” she said. “It’s about common sense and protecting children.”

Many faith-based day cares choose to be licensed, following the same standards as secular facilities. But day cares have a financial incentive to seek the religious exemption: Less regulation means lower costs because they can hire fewer workers, offer little or no staff training, and rarely face the upgrades that government inspectors require.

Often, Reveal found, religious day cares cater to low-income parents who are desperate to save money and trust any institution associated with the church.

But freedom from government regulation does not stop thousands of religious day cares from collecting millions of dollars a year in government funding to care for poor children. In the states with the broadest exemptions, these day cares amassed almost $323 million in government child care subsidies from 2011 to 2014, according to available data from five states.

Limited oversight means problems are hard to track. But in the available records, Reveal found that freedom from regulation can come at a high price for children.

Babies at religious day cares in Indiana languished in dirty diapers for so long that their bottoms became blistered and bloodied, and children wandered alone onto busy highways. Parents detailed these and other problems in 1,800 complaints filed with the state between 2007 and 2014. But in one-third of these cases, child care regulators informed parents that their concerns fell outside the state’s legal purview. “Supervision,” they wrote again and again, “is not required in a ministry.”

Investigations from Missouri’s child care licensing division show children there were put in dangerous situations dozens of times from 2010 to 2014. Understaffing was a common theme. At one religious day care, a pair of 3-year-olds escaped from the day care and later were found in the rain by police; at another, workers said toddlers were drugged with Benadryl to knock them out for naps and keep them quiet. One 5-year-old boy was forgotten in a van, where he could have suffocated, and told investigators: “No windows open. No air. I got sweaty.” Records show that many of these dangers sparked little more than a slap on the wrist from the state, such as a requirement that the facilities update their parent handbook.

Children in Alabama faith-based day cares were so poorly supervised that one disabled girl was left to soak in her own vomit until her mother arrived and another 6-year-old was trampled so hard by an older classmate that he developed a brain injury and had three teeth knocked loose, according to parent complaints filed with the state’s two largest counties since 2010. The Alabama Department of Human Resources, the agency that licenses secular day cares, had no power to investigate, let alone shut down any of these religious day cares for shoddy care. Local law enforcement agencies and health departments can investigate problems, but many of the issues parents complained about broke no rules.


As soon as Juan Cardenas heard his son was missing, he jumped into his car, his mind racing. When he finally slowed down, he started praying. “God, whatever happens, he’s in your hands,” he remembers thinking.

Juan Cardenas relied on word-of-mouth when he chose to place his son, Carlos, in a religious day care in Indianapolis. “I thought they were going to do a good job because they served God,” he said.








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