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“I do think it rises to the level of a criminal offense.”

Those are words from Anna Sims Barnes, who wants answers and action after she discovered her children’s day care was using hot sauce as punishment, as 1819 News first reported last week.

Following the story, Pastor Jimmy Bassham of Hoover First United Methodist Church took to the church’s pulpit and confirmed the stories reported by concerned mothers. 

“It turns out that for some time - years, if not decades - our day school has had a practice when a child bites another child, or when a child misbehaves, they have hot sauce put on their tongues,” Bassham said. “This practice has stopped. It will never be done again.”

“I was shocked to hear him say that, that it had been going on for years, if not decades. I was horrified,” Barnes told 1819 News.

Is using hot sauce to punish day care children a criminal act?

Barnes was among a group of mothers who went to report the incident to the Hoover Police Department after her children told her they saw other children at the school being punished with spoonfuls of hot sauce. Barnes has since pulled her four-year-old daughter and five-year-old son out of the school.

After that police report, the Alabama Department of Human Resources (DHR) visited the school and found the day school had been operating illegally because it was not registered in DHR’s system.

The Hoover First United Methodist Day School never registered with DHR to be licensed or license-exempt on religious grounds. Child care facilities in both of those categories must file annual paperwork with the state and follow health and safety standards, which specifically prohibit the use of hot sauce as punishment.

More than three weeks after the initial police report, the day care continues to operate, and mothers tell 1819 News they want answers about where the investigation stands, the status of the day care and if anyone will be held accountable.

Heather Willoughby is another mother who pulled her child from the school after her daughter told her what she witnessed. She said nobody from the church or school has contacted her to apologize or hear her story, including the pastor who spoke about the hot sauce to Sunday’s congregation.

“It just seemed like we were being lied to multiple times when we went to ask about what was going on,” Willoughby said. “So, to hear him say it was policy that we never signed off on, and had been done (for) years, if not decades, made me pretty mad.”

In his address, Bassham told his congregation the hot sauce was only given to two children whose parents were not bothered by it.

“We are currently in the process with the Department of Human Resources,” Bassham said. “They are making their own examination, and we will hear their report later. As a part of this, I have learned - and others - that our day school was not licensed.”

The day school is now only operating for four hours daily. Day care facilities in Alabama operating four hours or less each day are not required to be licensed.

“We are trying to work through that, determine what is and what is not required,” Bassham added.

“You would think that would be grounds to make them shut down completely,” Barnes said. “And this feels like a loophole to allow them some time to keep making money and get their ducks in a row.”

Where the investigation stands

The hot sauce and licensing issues are separate and could result in different outcomes.

The Hoover Police Department took the initial report about the hot sauce punishments. It then discovered the church is actually in unincorporated Jefferson County and turned its investigation over to Jefferson County DHR.

DHR told 1819 News it investigates all complaints but could not comment on specific child welfare cases.

At this point, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office says it has no record of DHR reaching out to open a criminal investigation into the hot sauce incidents.

As for operating without a license, DHR is required to turn those cases over to prosecutors. DHR confirmed it sent a letter on July 1 to Jefferson County District Attorney (DA) Danny Carr’s office about Hoover First United Methodist Church operating a day school without a license. That letter was sent via USPS, according to a DHR spokesman.

In our previous story, Carr told 1819 News his office would look into it.

Mothers tell 1819 News they want to see some kind of accountability for what happened.

“I don’t know [if teachers] should be charged if they were following a policy and didn’t realize,” Willoughby said. “I think there is no excuse for the director not having kept up with her own training … If it wasn’t malicious, it was definitely negligence because she wasn’t keeping up with her own development to know this is not a practice that’s okay.”

Barnes wants teachers who forced hot sauce into children’s mouths to have some kind of mark on their record that future employers would see in a background check.

“I really don’t want to see anyone serve time, but if that’s the only way to make sure they don’t work with children again, maybe that’s what should be done,” Barnes added.

Unlicensed Day care facilities across Alabama

In Alabama, child care facilities operating more than four hours each day must either be licensed by the state or file annually for a religious exemption. Facilities in both of those categories must follow health and safety standards.

Records obtained by 1819 News show that DHR has received 23 complaints of unlicensed day care facilities since January of this year, and all 23 have been forwarded to a district attorney or the attorney general for further action.

Benard Houston, Director of Child Care Services Division, explains DHR’s division of child care licensing does not have enforcement powers.

“What would happen is they would be reported; we’re required by our performance standards to report them to their local DA and/or attorney general and then locally, they determine whether or not they prosecute and what type of punitive action they seek,” Houston explained.

This is the first year DHR has kept a record of these cases.

“Before this year, the agency didn’t keep a record of those complaints because when we get those complaints, it’s turned over to the DA,” Houston added. “Our system isn’t built for what basically equates from our perspective, unlicensed or unregulated, unreported provider. Our system isn’t built to house information on them.”

Complaints of unlicensed day care facilities were turned over to prosecutors in Baldwin, Barbour, Calhoun, Chambers, Cherokee, Coffee, Jackson, Jefferson, Lee, Limestone, Madison, Marion, Shelby, St. Clair, Tuscaloosa and Wilcox counties.

1819 News cannot check to see how many of the 23 facilities are still operating because DHR did not provide names of the centers.

“These matters are now in the hands of the legal authorities, and we cannot release information that may jeopardize their investigations,” said Dominic Binkley, Communications Director for DHR. “This includes the names of the entities involved.”

Another Mother Speaks out

Since the initial report, 1819 News has spoken with Kathleen McLaughlin, who said her son attended the school at Hoover First United Methodist Church during the summer of 2019, when he was two years old.

“I know they did that to him,” McLaughlin said. “There’s no reason he would say, ‘No hot.’ There’s zero reason a kid that barely talks would walk around saying that.”

McLaughlin said her son, who was later diagnosed with autism, was only able to speak a few words that summer. He began expressing a new phrase, “no hot,” after starting to attend the school.

“He had never uttered those words before,” McLaughlin said. “He would just go, ‘No hot. No hot.’ And I couldn’t understand why.

“We started having issues with food while he was at the school … he literally dropped so many of the foods he had been eating … He wouldn’t trust anything on a spoon.”

McLaughlin said when she read reports this month about the day care punishing students with hot sauce, her heart sank. She said she finally understood the meaning of “no hot.”

“I was physically sick. I felt so bad,” McLaughlin told 1819 News, in tears. “I have not been able to sleep because I feel terrible that I made my son go here, and this is what they were doing to him, and he couldn’t even tell me.”

McLaughlin heard the pastor’s comments that the policy had gone back years.

“He also said it was only two children and the parents know,” McLaughlin said. “I promise you I did not know that. I didn’t know anything about this until a week and a half ago.”

McLaughlin said she’s since filed reports with Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and DHR.

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