HOOVER, Ala. (WIAT) – Sometimes, silence is deafening.
More than a month since News 19’s sister station in Birmingham, CBS 42, first reported that a religiously-affiliated Hoover daycare used hot sauce to punish infants and young children, Methodist leaders at the state and local levels have remained silent on whether the facility continues to operate.
In July, CBS 42 reported allegations by multiple mothers of children who attended the Hoover First United Methodist Church’s Day School that daycare staff punished infants and toddlers by forcing hot sauce on their tongues. A pastor at the church later confirmed from the pulpit that hot sauce had been used to punish children “for years, if not decades.”
At the time, the Alabama Department of Human Resources (DHR) said that the school was not licensed or registered as exempt from licensure as required by state law.
“I can share that this facility never completed steps required by law to operate as either a licensed or license-exempt child care program,” a DHR representative said in a statement at the time. “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.”
In the month since the allegations surfaced, Methodist leaders at the state and local levels have not responded to repeated inquiries about the status of the daycare. A sign advertising the day school has been removed from the church’s campus, and the church’s website has been scrubbed of any references to the child care facility. Still, in a statement sent to CBS 42 this week, state DHR officials could not confirm the daycare has been closed. Instead, the statement said, the facility has reduced operations “to less than four hours a day.”
“The church’s child care director indicated plans to apply for a license through DHR’s Child Care Services Division,” a spokesperson for Alabama DHR said. “She also stated that, in the meantime, operations would decrease to less than four hours per day, which is allowable without a license or exempt status.”
Repeated calls, texts, and emails sent to Hoover First UMC, the day school, and the United Methodist Church’s North Alabama Conference asking for confirmation of the daycare’s status have gone unanswered.
Heather Willoughby, whose three-year-old daughter attended the day school, said that she and other mothers met with officials from UMC’s North Alabama Conference last week. In that meeting, Willoughby said she felt heard by representatives of the Methodist church for the first time. Willoughby said that those in the meeting were told the daycare has closed, a claim church officials have not made publicly.
Prior to last week’s meeting, many of the mothers of children who attended the day school felt they had been ignored and belittled by local church leaders. In a statement made from the church’s pulpit the Sunday following CBS 42’s initial report, part-time pastor Jimmy Bassham confirmed that hot sauce had been used to punish children at the day school “for years, if not decades,” but said the practice had ended. Everything else he said about the punishment, the mothers told CBS 42, compounded the pain and frustration the church had already caused.
The mothers said the pastor’s comments from the pulpit downplayed what occurred, pushed the blame onto one individual when multiple mothers expressed concerns and did not accurately reflect what happened since the issue first came to light. The pastor later told CBS 42 he was sorry “if any mothers were upset by his comments” but added that the update was “meant solely for this church family.”
UPDATE: In a statement sent to CBS 42 after this article’s publication, Pastor Jimmy Bassham said that the daycare facility “is not officially closed” but that the church has “no intention to resume at any point.”
The day school is not officially closed at this point. They have taken their break between the summer and fall sessions. However, we have no intention to resume at any point in the foreseeable future. We are still waiting for any final determination from DHR. The reasons for not resuming are two. First, what happened recently and the extremely negative impact this has had on our church’s reputation makes it in our best interest to stop the Day School for the present. Second, since the DHR has limited our program to four hours per day, we do not believe the Day School will be financially viable in the future.-Pastor Jimmy Bassham, Hoover First United Methodist Church