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.
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.”
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. . .
Do read the entire article, which goes on to tell what happened to Carlos Cardenas, as well as giving more information.
This situation is not about religion. It’s about maximizing profit by cutting the quality of service.