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April 15, 2016

Child Day Care & Adult Retail Store: A 'Marriage' Made In Heaven?

FOLEY, Ala.—Deborah Stokes has been in the child day care business for 14 years, and to say it's been a rough time for her—and for the kids she minds—would be an understatement. At her first location, in Saraland, Ala., just outside of Mobile, she was arrested by local police for child endangerment for having warehoused the kids in a location that, according to the charges against her, didn't meet the county's health and safety standards. After that, however, Stokes got wise: She registered her day care business with the Alabama Secretary of State as a church, the "Alpha & Omega Ministries"—and though she's opened more than a dozen child day care centers since then, the state can barely touch her. Why? Well, it seems that thanks to a 1980s state law, church-sponsored day care centers are exempt from most state regulations. What that law has done is led to a string of day care centers across the state that operate in a gray area when it comes to the health and safety of the kids who are brought there for care—and in the case of one of Stokes' centers, warehousing the kids in a strip mall next to an adult retail store. "Deborah Stokes’ next day care popped up several months later on the other side of Foley, between a pawn shop and a porn store," reported NewsReveal.org's Amy Julia Harris. "At Kids Space Day Care, posters of scantily clad women and ads for lingerie and body jewelry hung feet from where parents dropped off their toddlers. It’s illegal in Alabama for a porn store to open next to a day care. But it’s not illegal for a day care to open next to a porn shop." Of course, it's unlikely that the kids were actually harmed by being that close to adult nudity, or even DVDs and magazines featuring hardcore sex, but considering that this all took place in what might be described as the "buckle of the Bible Belt," it's surprising that no state action was taken. The city council did attempt to deny her a business license in 2011—but Stokes sued the city, and its attorneys eventually agreed that the council had no power to regulate her "church." One of Stokes' employees at Kids Space, Kimberly Nicole Hinman, observed that disabled kids at the facility were locked in playpens for hours, and at least one toddler was slapped with a flyswatter. This so infuriated her that she started a Facebook group, "Stop Debbie Stokes From Opening Another Day Care." Since then, Stokes has moved around the state, opening day cares wherever she can—most recently in Spanish Fort, Ala., called Little Nemo's by the Bay—but the point is, in six states, being a church exempts any business that "church" operates from all state regulation—and opening a child day care next to a porn store may be the least of their worries. FYI, besides Alabama, those states are Florida, North and South Carolina, Missouri, and Indiana—so watch out, retailers: a "church" may be opening up right next to you! Pictured: Deborah Stokes' mug shot.

 
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