Monroe County Sheriff Kevin Crook called the Oct. 4 incident at Lil’ Blessings Daycare in Hamilton, Mississippi “difficult to watch” after it sparked outrage in the community of 560 people and quickly drew nationwide condemnation.
Families whose children attended the daycare met with sheriff’s deputies and local prosecutors this week, according to Crook. He said the ex-workers were arrested and taken into custody on Thursday, hours after three families filed felony charges and one filed misdemeanor charges.
It was not immediately clear which of the workers was wearing the mask. In an email Friday, Crook declined to comment on specifics of the case, citing the ongoing investigation.
Daycare owner Sheila Sanders said she was unaware of the October incident — and a similar incident filmed in September — until the next day, the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal reported. . Sanders, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday, condemned the staffers’ actions and fired them. Sanders has not been charged with any wrongdoing.
In one of the videos, a worker wearing a ghost mask made famous by the “Scream” movie franchise leans close to the children, growling and screaming as they moan. A worker indicates which of the children have been “bad” or “good”.
“Are you evil?” a masked educator asks in the video as she crouches next to a crying boy. “Do I need to take you back?”
As the boy continues to cry, the daycare worker leans towards the boy and roars as a second daycare worker is seen laughing.
The masked worker tells the children that they have to clean their toys. In another clip, a masked worker is heard trying to scare children as they cry; a girl is seen covering her ears as the worker screams while a young boy appears to bite his hand.
The videos have infuriated some residents of the small community of Hamilton, an unincorporated area 50 miles south of Tupelo where Lil’ Blessings is the city’s only daycare on business listings. Two days after the incident, Crook urged residents to be patient and let the investigation unfold, while acknowledging the videos were “hard to watch”.
“It made my stomach ache to think of the terror these children endured. It still does,” Crook wrote on the Sheriff’s Department’s Facebook page.
Lil’ Blessings has been closed since Oct. 6, when the Mississippi State Health Department issued an “emergency license suspension.” Calls to the facility went unanswered on Friday.
“The order is a halt and discontinuance of operations pending investigation of this incident,” department spokeswoman Liz Sharlot said in an email Friday. The agency said the investigation was complete and the findings had been forwarded to the agency’s attorney for processing.
“I was in shock at what I witnessed,” Katelyn Johnson, a sheriff’s department worker whose child attends Lil’ Blessings, told ABC News. “Whether they had a mask on or not, their behavior was unacceptable. My blood pressure has increased. 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 charged with three counts of child abuse. Bond was set Thursday at $20,000 for McCandless and Kilburn and $15,000 for Newman and Mills, Crooks said in a statement. A fifth person, Traci Hutson, 44, was charged with failing to report abuse by a mandatory reporter and common assault on a minor. Both are misdemeanors and did not require bail.
It was unclear whether the five women had attorneys; attempts to contact them were unsuccessful on Friday.
Crooks said a grand jury will then convene to determine if there is enough evidence to formally charge the four women with the crime.