MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - This fall, nearly 700 federally-funded child care facilities in Alabama underwent safety and health inspections from the Alabama Department of Human Resources as part of a new law.
The United States Department of Health and Human Services provides funding for child care centers serving qualifying low-income families under the Child Care Development Block Grant Act of 1990. A re-authorization bill for the grant was passed in 2014, but it wasn't until 2016 that HHS was able to finalize the specifics for rules pertaining to the grant. One of those rules included holding centers receiving these funds to certain standards.
In Alabama, that law impacts all 682 day care facilities that receive funding from HHS, both licensed centers and those that don't have to be licensed by the state because they fall under a religious exemption.
Once each center got inspected, it received a deficiency report listing all of its violations by federal standards.
DHR reported 15,156 total health and safety violations from the 682 centers. These violations include 4,040 child care program violations, 886 transportation violations, 5,308 staffing violation, 2,295 administration violations and 118 violations at nighttime facilities. You can read a break down about what each classification consisted of here.
DHR Child Care Services Director Jeanette Green said the numbers are concerning.
"It's always a concern when we see that," Green said. "If you think in terms of the ones we did monitor and was saw these issues, there's still some we don't monitor."
Many of the 682 centers that underwent this monitoring already had licenses from the State. According to child advocacy group VOICES for Alabama's Children, 956 of the state's 1,938 child care facilities are under a religious exemption. Only a small portion of those centers receive federal subsidies and got this inspection.
"If they're not on the subsidy program, there's not someone who goes out to regulate and goes out to monitor," Green said. "If they are exempt, we rely on them to tell us that they are meeting the standards."
Alethea Mack, who owns Hope Christian Child Development Center, said she has been running her child care facility under a religious exemption for 12 years. She said she has regular safety inspections at her facility and has never had any issues.
"At first, I wanted to be exempt because I wanted the freedom to teach the kids the religious aspect of education," Mack said.
Hope Christian receives federal subsidies, so Mack just went through the inspection process.
"When you look at what they're asking us to do, it's very minimal. It's all for the safety of the children," Mack said.
Her discrepancy report had 15 violations, ranging from needing to cover electrical sockets to placing hand sanitizer in the proper location. Mack said she made the immediate corrections in front of the inspectors and has made the corrections that weren't able to be completed that day. She said most of the violations on her report were "small things."
Green said even things that were considered violations that may seem small, are all important.
"They're all geared toward the health and safety of the children," Green said.
In fact, Mack called the guidelines used for the subsidized centers a "scaled back version" of the state's licensing requirements.
"We are not covering anything that the federal guidelines did not say that we were to cover," Green said. "We are not looking at things like equipment, toys and curriculum the way we would for licensing."
Mack, who said she didn't realize a number of the items on her report were violations, made the decision to start paperwork to get licensed.
"If it's about the kids, it shouldn't matter," Mack said. "I agree that all day care facilities should be regulated. They should all have to answer to some board."
However, in Alabama, the religious exemption makes it possible for many centers to go unregulated by the state. VOICES Deputy Director Rhonda Mann said this creates the opportunity for some centers to abuse the protection.
"We don't know what's happening in centers without someone going in to check," Mann said.
Green said some center owners, like Mack, decided to get licensed after undergoing to the first round of the monitoring process. However, she said there were more cases in which exempt centers decided to stop receiving the funds so they would not have to go through the process.
DHR is now in the process of conducting second round inspections to make sure each subsidized center corrected their violations, which they had 90 days to take care of. The centers are also required to post their reports publicly so parents and guardians can view them. If you would like to know if your child's day care facility was part of this process and has a report, you can click here for a list of subsidized centers in this area. You can also see if your subsidized center is licensed or exempt.
You can also click here to a break down of how many child care facilities are licensed and license exempt in all 67 Alabama counties.
If your facility was part of this process and does not provide their report, you can contact DHR and request that information by calling 334-242-1425.