BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) – When the behavior of Kathleen Mclaughlin’s two-year-old son began to take a turn for the worst, she couldn’t pin down the cause of the problem. Her child, who would later be diagnosed with autism, was refusing to eat some foods, and he kept repeating a phrase Kathleen and her husband couldn’t understand: “No hot.”

Three years later, in the wake of revelations that Hoover First United Methodist Day School used hot sauce to punish young children “for years, if not decades,” Mclaughlin said she’s finally putting the pieces together. She believes her son was punished with hot sauce without her knowledge or consent and she’s demanding accountability.

(Courtesy of Kathleen Mclaughlin)

When Mclaughlin’s son began attending the Hoover day school in 2019, he was still mostly nonverbal, his mom said. But the words he kept repeating – “no hot” – were confusing to his parents. What could it mean? 

The Fourth of July became a turning point. 

“He outright refused to go,” Mclaughlin said of her son. “He was scratching and hitting and telling me ‘no.’”

Mclaughlin took it as a “major sign” that something was wrong. She reached out to the day school’s director, who told Mclaughlin that her son had not been getting along with another child at the daycare. 

“That was the first I had heard of it,” Mclaughlin said. She pulled her son out of the daycare. 

Now, following a CBS 42 report detailing accounts of children being punished using hot sauce, Mclaughlin said there’s little doubt in her mind about what “no hot” meant to her son.

“I blame myself for sending him there and trusting them with my son,” Mclaughlin said. 

She said that she would never have consented to the use of hot sauce to punish her son if she’d been asked by daycare staff. 

Her son’s time at the daycare set back his development significantly, his mother said. 

“The almost year-long process I had to go through to get him back to where he was before attending this school and having no idea why was extremely upsetting,” she said. 

Learning about the use of hot sauce on children at the center has left Mclaughlin emotionally exhausted.

“The guilt and anger I feel is not something I can put into words,” she said. 

Mclaughlin is not alone in her convictions. Four other mothers whose children attended the day school have publicly criticized the school for the practice and for how the situation has been handled since it first came to light. 

The Sunday after CBS 42’s initial report, the church’s part-time pastor Jimmy Bassham addressed the issue from the pulpit, confirming the practice was in place for “years if not decades” but saying the punishment was limited to only two children. Hot sauce will never be used to punish children in the day school again, he pledged.

(Courtesy of Kathleen Mclaughlin)

Mclaughlin and the other mothers said the church needs to take accountability for their actions and be more transparent about what happened.

For her part, Mclaughlin said she believes the daycare should be shut down.

“So many lies were told,” Mclaughlin said. “I feel it is criminal, and if this was a non-church-affiliated daycare there would be arrests.”

Religiously-affiliated daycare facilities like the Hoover First UMC Day School 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. The Hoover day school, state officials confirmed, was not registered with the state at all. DHR has made a site visit to the daycare, the agency confirmed and has notified “proper authorities” about the school’s failure to comply with state law. 

All five mothers interviewed about this incident said that there shouldn’t be different standards for daycares based on whether the facility is affiliated with a church. 

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