HOOVER, Ala. (WIAT) – When she received the cease and desist letter from the daycare, she was shocked.

The mother, a lawyer, said she felt the letter was a misguided effort to shut her up. She’d shared her concerns about a Hoover daycare her daughter had attended in a Facebook group where another local mom had asked about the facility. But before long, the letter came.

“Your false, libelous statements have damaged and continue to damage Heritage’s reputation,” the letter, written on law firm letterhead, said. The lawyer, on behalf of Heritage Preschools, “respectfully demanded” that the mother remove the post.

“If you fail to do so, Heritage stands prepared to fully pursue its rights under the law,” the letter concluded.

The mother is one of seven women – parents and former teachers at Heritage Preschool’s Ross Bridge location – who said they either witnessed or suspected abuse and neglect at the daycare facility. Most of the women said they reported the alleged abuse to administrators at Heritage, and at least one parent reported multiple incidents to the Alabama Department of Human Resources (DHR). DHR said in a statement that while they cannot comment on child welfare cases, the agency “investigates all child abuse and neglect reports submitted to our county offices.”

Heritage Preschools, which is exempt from typical licensure requirements because of its religious affiliation, denied the allegations in a statement sent to parents Thursday night.

“We refuse to allow the actions of disgruntled former employees and parents both to invalidate the work of our staff and the growth of our students,” the statement said.

Despite the statement, which directly referenced CBS 42’s inquiries about the matter, the daycare did not respond to the news outlet’s questions about the allegations before publication time Friday morning.

Heritage Preschool at Ross Bridge allegedly abused and neglected children, according to more than half a dozen mothers and former staff. (Photo by Lee Hedgepeth)

“We’ll look into it”

Another woman worked at Heritage at Ross Bridge for about a year, eventually becoming a lead teacher. During her time working there, she said she saw the treatment of both employees and children deteriorate.

She said she’d heard other staff yelling at young children. Once, she saw a teacher grab a child’s arm in a way she felt was forceful and unneeded.

“I’m not really sure [why he did it], but he should have been more gentle about it,” she said.

She said the daycare was also inappropriately lax with sick policies, allowing children with fevers to stay at the facility alongside other, healthy children.

Whenever she saw issues, she said, she reported them to Heritage’s administration.

“They didn’t really respond to it,” she said. “They may have said ‘we’ll look into it’ or something like that, but that’s as far as it ever got.”

She left Heritage when she got a new job after finishing her degree.

She said Heritage no longer delivers the safe, Biblically-grounded childcare it’s always claimed to provide.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s a healthy environment for teachers or for kids,” she said.

“We were being watched”

A second former teacher – one whose daughter attended Heritage at Ross Bridge for free as part of her employment – said she also witnessed abuse and neglect of children at the facility.

She said that during much of her time at Heritage, she worked as an assistant for a teacher that she said often behaved inappropriately.

“When she would get mad, she’d scream at the children,” she said. “She’d pinch them.”

Sometimes, if a baby was being noncompliant, she said, the teacher would “grab” a child and begin spinning them around.

“She would grab the baby, place it on her arms, and hold the baby and spin herself fast,” the former teacher said. “That would cause the baby to cry because she was spinning so hard.”

She said that she doesn’t believe claims that Heritage was unaware of the teacher’s inappropriate behavior because of the prolific use of cameras throughout the facility.

“We were being watched,” she explained. “And [the teacher] was very rough with the babies, and they [Heritage administration] never said anything.”

The former teacher said when her daughter informed her that another child had struck her in class, she approached her employer, asking that the issue be addressed. It wasn’t, she said, and her work life began becoming more difficult. She felt she was being pressured to leave, and soon, she did just that.

“There was no ministry”

Briana Merriweather is a nurse whose son attended Heritage at Ross Bridge.

She said that she began having concerns about the daycare when she realized the high level of turnover amongst employees – an issue each of the women interviewed by CBS 42 mentioned.

At one point, Merriweather said, her son Ross – who was three at the time – told her a teacher was hitting him.

“He was telling us that his teacher was telling him to shut up – that his teacher was hitting him,” she recalled. “He was having nightmares. He was exhibiting textbook symptoms of abuse.”

Ross’ behavior – which had been normal before – became erratic. He began wetting the bed. He started acting out.

After Heritage officials told Merriweather that her son had called a teacher an inappropriate name, she asked to see the video footage, she said. A daycare official initially agreed, Merriweather explained, but later backtracked, telling her that it was best if the facility simply “separated” from the family at that time.

Merriweather, an African-American, said she felt the actions of the daycare may have been racially discriminatory. Her son, she said, was essentially expelled from the school, portrayed as a stereotypical violent Black child while other, white children, were characterized as just “a little hard to deal with” and given a second chance.

Her experience with Heritage made the daycare’s pitch as an organization devoted to the “ministry of childcare” fall flat on its back, Merriweather said.

“There was no ministry,” she said. “They’re not doing what they say they do.”

All in all, Merriweather said she’s glad her son is no longer at Heritage. She said almost immediately after he left the daycare, all of the problem behaviors she’d noticed Ross develop disappeared.

“They completely stopped,” she said. “Now he’s back to normal.”

“I need help”

Another teacher whose child attended the school said she witnessed another staff member grab her son’s wrist in a way that left him injured.

“He ended up getting hurt where he couldn’t move his hand for a couple of days,” she said. “And nothing really happened to that teacher.”

She also said that teachers at the facility often don’t have enough help to appropriately take care of the number of kids in their classrooms.

“There were times I was over ratio and called for help from the front, and they’d call my room ‘organized chaos,’” she said. “And I was like ‘Okay, yes, and I need help.’”

The ratio the former teacher referenced is a measurement of the number of children per adult in a classroom or other childcare setting. Typically, childcare facilities are required to meet minimum standards of care that include specific ratios of children to caregivers – regulations that keep classes small and manageable. Daycare facilities like Heritage which are religiously affiliated, however, are not required to be licensed by the Department of Human Resources and therefore aren’t subject to regular inspection or enforcement of provisions like such ratios.

Nonetheless, until Thursday, DHR had listed on its website a complaint that Heritage’s Trussville location violated staff-child ratio standards in August – a complaint the agency investigated and characterized as “substantiated.” On Thursday, though, when asked about the complaint, the state agency said because the facility is not subject to staff-child ratio standards, the report was listed publicly in error. The facility had violated a minimum standard of childcare, according to the agency, but it was simply not subject to that standard. The report has since been removed from public view.

In addition to the complaint against the Trussville location, DHR lists Heritage’s Huntsville location as having been the subject of a “substantiated complaint” of “rough or harsh handling” of a child.

“DHR’s Child Care Services Division received a complaint of rough or harsh handling. Since this type of complaint is not under the Child Care Services Division’s purview, it was referred to the county DHR office and the district attorney for investigation,” the agency said in a statement. “Complaints of this type become child welfare matters, so we cannot provide any additional information.

Heritage’s five locations – in Huntsville, Pelham, Homewood, Trussville, and Ross Bridge – are hardly the only underregulated childcare facilities in the state.

According to DHR’s website, which hosts a searchable database of childcare facilities, there are nearly 500 unlicensed daycares open across Alabama. Another unlicensed Hoover daycare – one run by the United Methodist Church – ceased regular operation last year after CBS 42 reported staff there had used hot sauce to punish children in their care “for years, if not decades.”

“They need help”

Thursday evening, as word spread of the daycare’s email denying any wrongdoing, fear spread, too. Multiple members of the facility’s staff reported feeling as though “heads would roll” – not because of the alleged abuse, but because the reports surfaced publicly.

Keyara Thurston said she believes she was fired on Thursday as part of an effort to “clean house” ahead of the publication of CBS 42’s reporting. A mother had complained to staff about a child that had allegedly not been changed in a significant amount of time, she said. The administration, Thurston explained, blamed her for the incident despite video evidence that she believed exonerated her completely. It didn’t matter, Thurston said. In light of the allegations against it, she felt the daycare may just need a scapegoat.

Thurston said she believes DHR should be more heavy-handed in interventions at the facility.

“They need help,” she said of Heritage. “They can’t do this right on their own.”

Thurston and every other mother interviewed by CBS 42 for this story said they believe religiously affiliated daycares should be subject to the same rigorous licensure and inspection requirements as non-religious facilities.

“I’m a Christian,” one of the mothers said. “And when I think about the fact that they’re treating children and employees poorly under the banner of Christianity, it makes me sick. All daycares should follow the same guidelines.”

After this story’s initial publication, Larry Vann, CEO of Heritage Preschools, provided a written statement to CBS 42 largely in line with the e-mail sent to parents and teachers the night before. In it, Vann denied the allegations made by the parents and former employees.

“In the course of providing high-quality child care, as is the case with all businesses, Heritage occasionally has to terminate the employment of employees,” Vann’s statement said in part. “This is regrettable, and it causes some former employees to desire to retaliate by advancing false narratives. Heritage remains committed to serving our families well and providing all our students with the level of care that we would want our own children provided.”

You can read Heritage Preschools’ full statement below.