Child's death forces religious daycare exemptions back in spotlight

Updated: Aug. 24, 2017 at 7:52 PM CDT
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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Religiously-affiliated daycare centers are back in the spotlight following the death of a 5-year-old boy, who died in a hot daycare van in Mobile. His body was left near a driveway.

Daycares with this religious exemption aren't licensed and regulated by the state, and workers aren't subject to criminal background checks or state inspections.

The Child Care Safety Act Bill was introduced in the 2017 Legislative Session to close the religious daycare exemptions, but it died in the Senate.

"The only word that comes to mind is outrage," said Melanie Bridgeforth, regarding the death of 5-year-old Kamden Johnson.

As Executive Director of VOICES for Alabama's Children, Bridgeforth helped craft the bipartisan bill to eliminate religious exemptions for daycares.

"We had an opportunity in this state to prioritize children, and say that our babies matter," Bridgeforth said. "When they are served in childcare in this state, they are going to - at a minimum - be in a center than is regulated and inspected on a regular basis.  We had that opportunity,  and we let it slip away."

Bridgeforth was joined by other advocacy groups in the fight to license all daycares in Alabama, including Montgomery Attorney Joe Hubbard.  Hubbard represented families of nearly one hundred children that contracted staph infections from Sunnyside Daycare, an unlicensed, exempt center, in 2015.

"Had House Bill 277 passed, we may not be sitting here talking about the death of a 5-year-old boy at the hands of a daycare worker," Hubbard said.

Hubbard testified before the House Committee about closing the loopholes in the religious daycare exemptions, including those that don't require criminal background checks for daycare workers.

"It's a no brainer, you don't let someone convicted of felonies work with children," said Hubbard. "If those lawmakers had done their job, that daycare
worker would have never been allowed to work at that daycare."

Hubbard is referring to Valarie Patterson, arrested in Mobile for manslaughter and abuse of a corpse in the death of Johnson.

"She has a laundry list of convictions, felony convictions," Hubbard said.

Hubbard said politics stood in the way of child safety during the legislative session.

"I testified before the House Committee, not more than a week letter I got a letter from a very powerful person in Montgomery, telling me how ashamed I should be on the public statements I made on this issue," Hubbard said.

The former lawmaker is quick to point out daycares don't have to be connected to a church or religious organization to claim the religious exemption, something he saw firsthand during the Sunnyside Daycare investigation.

"It was initially a licensed daycare," Hubbard said of the daycare. "The license was pulled in 2009, after a series of DHR violations - the last of which was a 4-year-old boy being locked in a daycare van in the middle of July for 3 hours. They found him locked in the van, passed out, and severely dehydrated."

Hubbard explained after losing the daycare license, Sunnyside formed a religious non-profit and reopened the childcare center.

"There is no church, pastor, congregation, no services," Hubbard said. "They took advantage of that exemption and reopened under the exemption."

The fight to close the exemption isn't over. In fact, Bridgeforth says it never ended. Another bill will be introduced in the 2018 Legislative Session.

"Before 2017, a lot of lawmakers may not have known this was an issue," Bridgeforth said. "Now we know.  Now it's an issue of political will."

Gov. Kay Ivey is calling for a bill on this issue before the session.

"Any child that's in the care of a daycare center, that center needs to be licensed to ensure quality folks are rendering quality service," said Ivey.

Bridgeforth sends a word of caution to parents to do their homework and determine whether or not their child's daycare is licensed.

"They are not all created equally," Bridgeforth said. "The most thing we can do with this campaign is to empower parents to ask questions, most importantly: when you take your child to a childcare center, you need to know if that childcare center is licensed.  Are they meeting certain standards, such
as criminal background checks? Are they CPR certified?  Are they meeting staff-child ratio, are there enough adults to care for the children in that building?"

WSFA 12 News attempted to reach out to lawmakers that opposed this bill, but our calls have not been returned.

Copyright 2017 WSFA 12 News. All rights reserved.