Four ex-workers at a Mississippi day care are facing multiple charges of felony child abuse two weeks after viral videos showed the adult staffers using a horror mask to terrify and discipline toddlers in their care. A fifth person faces misdemeanor charges for failing to report the incident, according to local officials.
Monroe County Sheriff Kevin Crook called the Oct. 4 incident at the Lil’ Blessings Daycare in Hamilton, Miss., “hard to watch” after it sparked outrage in the community of 560 people and soon drew national condemnation.
Families whose children attended the day care met with sheriff’s deputies and local prosecutors this week, according to Crook. He said the ex-workers were arrested and taken into custody Thursday, hours after three families filed felony charges and one filed misdemeanor charges.
It was not immediately clear which of the workers wore the mask. In an email Friday, Crook declined to comment on specifics of the case, citing the ongoing investigation.
Day-care owner Sheila Sanders said she was not aware of the October incident — and a similar one filmed in September — until the following day, the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal reported. Sanders, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday, condemned the staffers’ actions and fired them. Sanders has not been accused of wrongdoing.
In one of the videos, a worker wearing a ghostface mask made famous by the “Scream” film franchise leans close to the children, growling and screaming as they wail. A worker points out which of the children have been “bad” or “good.”
“Are you being bad?” a masked day-care worker asks in the video as she crouches next to a crying boy. “Do I need to take you out back?”
As the boy continues to cry, the day-care worker leans toward the boy and roars as a second day-care worker is seen laughing.
The masked worker tells the children that they need to clean up their toys. In another clip, a masked worker is heard trying to scare the children as they cry; one girl is seen covering her ears as the worker shrieks while a young boy appears to bite on his hand.
The videos have infuriated some residents in the tiny community of Hamilton, an unincorporated area 50 miles south of Tupelo were Lil’ Blessings is the town’s only day care in business listings. Two days after the incident, Crook urged residents to be patient and let the investigation unfold, while at the same time acknowledging that the videos were “hard to watch.”
“It made me sick at my stomach to think of the terror those kids were enduring. It still does,” Crook wrote on the sheriff’s department Facebook page.
Lil’ Blessings has been closed since Oct. 6, when the Mississippi State Department of Health issued an “emergency suspension of license.” Calls to the facility went unanswered Friday.
“The order is a cease and desist of operation pending investigation of this incident,” department spokeswoman Liz Sharlot said in an email Friday. The agency said the investigation is complete and the findings have been given to the agency attorney to process.
“I was in complete shock of what I witnessed,” Katelyn Johnson, an employee of the sheriff’s department whose child who attends Lil’ Blessings, told ABC News. “Whether they had a mask on or a mask off, their behavior was unacceptable. My blood pressure was raised. It broke my heart for my child. I was angry.”
The ex-workers live in the local community, according to the sheriff’s office. Sierra McCandless, 21; Oci-Anna Kilburn, 28; Jennifer Newman, 25, and Shyenne Shelton, 28, are each accused of three counts of felony child abuse. Bond was set Thursday at $20,000 for McCandless and Kilburn and at $15,000 for Newman and Mills, Crooks said in a statement. A fifth person, Traci Hutson, 44, was charged with failure to report abuse by mandatory reporter and simple assault against a minor. Both are misdemeanors and did not require bond.
It was not clear whether the five women had attorneys; attempts to contact them were unsuccessful Friday.
Crooks said a grand jury will next convene to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to formally indict the four women on felony charges.