Heather Willoughby was stunned when her daughter told her that teachers at her day care were giving hot sauce to babies as punishment.

“The idea of someone that she’s supposed to be able to trust as her caregiver putting something like that to cause her pain, that’s absolutely horrifying,” Willoughby told 1819 News.

Willoughby said she spoke with other parents at Hoover First United Methodist Day School hearing the same thing from their children. She added that her three-and-a-half-year-old daughter provided details, including a description of the bottle.

“She gave details to corroborate the story,” Willoughby said. “We asked a couple other parents, and then we went down there the next morning to talk to the director about it. She said yes, it had been used. It was being handled.”

Willoughby and other parents reported the incident to Hoover Police Department (HPD), which confirmed to 1819 News it has begun an investigation. When it was discovered the church is actually in unincorporated Jefferson County, and not inside Hoover City Limits, HPD turned its investigation into the use of hot sauce over to Jefferson County Department of Human Resources.

1819 News spoke with other parents who confirmed the allegations but chose not to speak on the record. 

An Incident Report from HPD describes another mother’s account of what happened.

The narrative in that report states a four-year-old girl told her mom the school “had made her watch as the day schoolteachers gave hot sauce and apple cider vinegar to the crying children to make them stop crying.”

The HPD report stated that this four-year-old girl described how “the teachers would put hot sauce on a spoon and force it into the mouths of children less than a year old up to toddlers who cry or misbehave and make the other children watch.”

DHR spokesman Dominic Binkley confirmed the investigation to 1819 News but said the department can’t comment on specific child welfare cases.

He was, however, able to confirm a second issue DHR found when its Child Care Services Division conducted a site visit at Hoover First Methodist Day School on June 30. DHR had no record of the school in its system.

“This facility never completed steps required by law to operate as either a licensed or license-exempt child care program,” Binkley confirmed. “This was confirmed by our Child Care Services Division during a site visit on Thursday. As a result, we have notified the appropriate legal authorities, in accordance with our standard procedures.”

One week after DHR’s site visit, 1819 News witnessed this day school still in operation.

“That says they’re continuing to operate illegally,” said Benard Houston, DHR Director of Childcare Services Division.

Two separate issues are now at play. The hot sauce investigation is currently in the hands of Jefferson County Department of Human Resources. DHR said it turned the licensing issue over to Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office.

When 1819 News reached out to Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr, he said his office will look into it.

When asked about the use of hot sauce, Hoover First United Methodist sent 1819 News a statement reading, “The safety and well-being of the children and families we serve is our top priority. We are aware of the allegations and take them seriously. We are cooperating fully with the Department of Human Resources investigation. We are praying for all involved.”

When asked if the teachers who reportedly used hot sauce were still at the school, the church said it was unable to answer further questions.

Willoughby told 1819 News that while children are typically separated by age groups, they were combined in the same classroom for the summer. She said she’s glad her daughter and other older children were able to speak up about what they saw.

“With the corroboration between her and five other children, several of them picked the same bottle of hot sauce out of a lineup, and we really tried to make sure we weren’t making baseless accusations,” Willoughby said.

She pulled her daughter out of the school. 

“If something like that can happen, it does make me worry that other things have been going on too or at the very least negligence and lack of supervision of new employees, which is horrifying,” Willoughby continued. 

As many parents have experienced, finding availability in day cares is a challenge. Willoughby was able to find a new school with a spot for her daughter beginning in the fall and made the decision to keep her home until it’s available. 

DHR Licensing Requirements and Safety Standards

In Alabama, 1,277 daycares are licensed through the Department of Human Resources. Another 478 daycare facilities fall into the “license-exempt” category, based on their religious status. All of these facilities file annual paperwork and are recorded in DHR’s database.  

When 1819 News asked DHR if Hoover First United Methodist Day School has ever filed the necessary paperwork to be in either of those two categories, Binkley said the school had no record in its system.

All of Alabama’s day care facilities, whether they are licensed or receive a religious exemption, must follow DHR’s Health and Safety Standards, explained Benard Houston, DHR Director of Childcare Services Division. 

“An exempt center receives an exemption for licensure based on their religion,” Houston said. “So, it’s a religious entity. They do get a letter from us establishing they are licensed exempt, but they’re not required to do everything in the performance standards like a licensed facility.”

Houston said the main difference between licensed and license-exempt is that there are no annual site visits and no monitoring for an exempt provider.

“Unless there is a complaint, or unless the exempt provider does not meet their timely applications because they have to renew every year, there won’t be a site visit, and we don’t have to monitor them,” Houston said.

Facilities with a religious exempt status also can’t get any state, local or federal funding.

DHR’s Health and Safety standards, which apply to all of the state’s day cares, specifically prohibit the use of hot sauce as punishment.

One of the standards reads, “Discipline associated with food, naps or bathroom procedures is prohibited, including but not limited to: withholding food as punishment; use of food such as hot sauce, lemon juice, vinegar, etc., or soap, as punishment.”

Houston emphasized the importance of these standards.

“We’re literally having that conversation now as a great example,” Houston said. “We have someone that for whatever reason felt it was okay to give kids hot sauce, which potentially could be a choking hazard. If a facility is licensed, they’re required to do 11 hours of health and safety training. So, this is the state’s way of making sure people who are providing care are aware of those things that are hazards.”

Houston said if a licensed facility doesn’t follow the standards, it risks losing its license.

“If you’re exempt, depending on the severity, you may actually be prosecuted,” Houston said. “So, even though, for our purposes, even if you’re exempt, we can’t take a license you don’t have, but now we’re reporting that incident to your local DA [District Attorney] and/or AG [Attorney General], so there may potentially be something more punitive than a license. You may be prosecuted.”

There is another type of child care facility that the law does not require to be licensed. Houston said any facility offering four hours of care or less, like a Mother’s Day Out program, is not required to be licensed.

However, if that provider offers extended hours like before or aftercare, which total more than four hours, it is required to be licensed.

He encourages parents to become educated about their day care, noting DHR’s website has a searchable database with all of the state's daycares with licensed or license-exempt status.

“Make use of the website,” Houston said. “There’s very good information parents have access to on our website that can give you the opportunity to make an informed decision about care.”

DHR’s Day Care Directory can be found online.

To connect with the author of this story, or to comment, email lauren.walsh@1819News.com.

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