HOOVER, Ala. (WIAT) – For Anna Sims Barnes’ family, it was taco night, and it was time to spice it up. Her husband walked to the fridge and took out a bottle of hot sauce. Dinner was served. 

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But what came next shocked and confused Anna and her husband. One of their children, a 5-year-old boy, spoke up, unprompted. 

“That’s what they give the babies at school,” the child said, gesturing toward the hot sauce bottle. 

Their other child, a 4-year-old girl, echoed her brother. 

“Yeah, it is,” she said. “That’s what they give the babies.”

Days later, Barnes and three other mothers have said that their children witnessed hot sauce being given to kids aged two years and younger at the Hoover First United Methodist Church’s Children’s Day School. The mothers said they reported the incident to school officials, who downplayed the issue and said the matter would be handled appropriately. At least one mother reported the incident to Hoover police; another said she reported it to the Department of Human Resources. All of the mothers have removed their children from the daycare, saying they expected more from an institution in which they placed so much trust.

Once Anna Barnes had finished talking to her children, she called Heather Willoughby, another mother of a child at the daycare. She told Willoughby what her children had said and asked her to speak with her child. 

She did, and her three-year-old girl corroborated the story.

The hot sauce was being used in situations where young children were biting, screaming, or exhibiting other disruptive behavior, the mothers gathered from their children. 

“I took my daughter out of the school immediately,” Willoughby said. “She didn’t go back.”

Willoughby, though, did return to the school, where she and other mothers spoke with the daycare center’s director. 

The director, the mothers said, was vague, confirming some aspects of the story but dodging direct questions.

“I understand this person probably wanted to protect themselves,” Barnes said. 

She left the meeting unsatisfied with the response she’d received. 

A police narrative based on complaints of a third mother indicates that her four-year-old daughter was told by daycare staff to watch as another child was given hot sauce and apple cider vinegar. 

“[Her] daughter said 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 other children watch,” the Hoover Police Department incident report said. A detective, the report said, was notified of the complaint. 

A fourth mother, who asked that her name be withheld, told CBS 42 that her child has attended the day school since he was three months old. She said that after speaking with daycare staff, she’d felt more comfortable about the hot sauce allegations – that it wasn’t a common occurrence and that it wouldn’t happen again. She said, though, that her issue with the daycare began when different mothers started hearing different stories from staff. Parents weren’t getting straight answers, she said. And then came the realization that the daycare wasn’t registered with the state.

“If the honesty would have been there, I don’t think this would have been as bad,” she said.

Day care facilities like the Hoover First UMC Day School which are affiliated with a church are not required to be licensed by the Department of Human Resources. Such facilities are, however, required by law to register with state officials as an “exempt” daycare. As of this writing, Hoover First UMC Day School was not registered as an exempt organization or as a licensed daycare facility with Alabama DHR. The day school does not appear in the state’s daycare database at all. 

In a statement sent to CBS 42, a representative of Alabama DHR said that the facility did not take the steps necessary to comply with 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,” the representative said in a statement. “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.”

Anna Barnes said she doesn’t think that the use of hot sauce as a punishment is appropriate, especially without parental consent. 

“I don’t think any food should be used as punishment for any child of any age, anywhere,” she said. “Hot sauce is particularly concerning because it can harm a child.”

The mothers varied on exactly what they think should happen next, but they all said they hope the daycare becomes more transparent about what happened in the days that come. 

“We are really just trying to protect children and protect the community,” Barnes said. “There is no personal element to this. It’s been heartbreaking. It’s an unfortunate situation that could have been prevented with a little more care.”

Each mother said that they are opposed to state law that allows daycares associated with churches to be exempt from licensing requirements.

“Just because it’s a Christian-based facility shouldn’t change the standards,” one of the moms said.

All three mothers told CBS 42 that their children won’t return to the day school, but that decision is presenting challenges. Often, daycares allow enrollment only during particular time periods, making it hard for the mothers to find new childcare options for their kids. 

“I’m having a really hard time finding somewhere,” one of the mothers said. “If any daycares are able to open enrollment that are willing to accept kids from the day school, that would be great. This has put parents in a bind.”

On Wednesday afternoon, after this article’s publication, Hoover United Methodist Day School provided CBS 42 with a written statement saying they will be praying for all involved.

“The safety and well-being of the children and families we serve is our top priority,” the statement said. “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.”