Mandy McDougal’s 3-year-old son would tell the “mean teachers” at his day care “no.”
The boy was working on his transition from Little Blessings Learning Center’s 2-year-old room to “the big kid room,” where 3- and 4-year-olds were cared for.
“It’s been a nightmare,” Mandy McDougal said of multiple child abuse charges filed against day care employees Teresa Gallagher and Kenedi Wendt. “I’ve been sick ever since.”
Sioux Falls police say the children who were taken care of by Gallagher and Wendt complained about nap time on a daily basis.
Their parents were often told that their children, all between the ages of 3 and 4, were “being bad.”
But what was really happening during nap time, court documents say, was repeated child abuse by the two in response to minor and often non-existent infractions.
Police obtained video footage of the defendant’s preschool room from Feb. 14 to Feb. 23 and found dozens of instances of abuse in just that nine-day period, documents say.
Gallagher, who has worked at the day care since November 2013, is seen stomping on children, hitting them, throwing them to the ground, pushing their heads into the ground, shaking their heads, pinning their arms to their sides and draping her legs over them.
Wendt, who has worked in the preschool room since February 2017, is seen performing similar behavior, including stomping on a child’s back, violently yanking children by their arms, slamming them face-down into sleeping mats, stepping on a child’s fingers, and driving her knee into a child’s back.
Neither have a criminal history, except for a minor traffic violation by Wendt.
Little Blessings Learning Center, located at 1310 W. 51st St., is the longest running child care center in Sioux Falls, according to the Volunteers of America-Dakotas, which oversees the facility. The center has capacity for 62 children, ages 4 weeks to 5 years.
At Wendt’s initial court appearance Tuesday, parents stood up in a packed courtroom and made emotional statements, describing the effects of the alleged abuse on their children.
Multiple people in the room broke into tears as one woman asked Wendt how she could treat children in such a manner.
Eight different children were allegedly abused over the nine-day period, resulting in 25 total counts of abuse or cruelty to a minor. Wendt was charged with 24 counts and Gallagher with 17, with many of the charges shared between the two employees.
McDougal’s son, who has attended the day care for about eight months, told her a few weeks ago that his head hurt from being slammed against a wall. He would backtrack and say that he hurt himself at day care, she said.
What she, and other parents, want to know is why the security footage wasn’t reviewed sooner and whether it is observed regularly.
“We pay extra per week for these security cameras; why are they not being watched?” McDougal said. “This could have been prevented. We have all this in place to prevent this and it’s not being done.”
John Hart, managing director for Volunteers of America-Dakotas, was listed as the contact person on a note sent to parents. He didn’t respond to an interview request Tuesday.
Nearly all of the abuse appeared to be in the service of getting the children to lay very still in a certain position during nap time, court documents said. Even a child moving their fingers could cause either Gallagher or Wendt to “adjust” them.
And often, investigators claim, lying completely still in the appropriate position appeared to nonetheless result in abuse.
None of the children required medical treatment, although documents say one child is undergoing medical tests following complaints of head and back pain that have continued for some time.
McDougal had noticed her son had two new teachers in his room and saw that he was more excited to go to school the last few weeks. In hindsight, the timing lines up with Gallagher and Wendt’s departure.
The day care was notified in late February of the abuse claims and parents were notified the last week of March. McDougal wants to know why she and other parents weren’t notified sooner.
She found out about the abuse from a phone call while at work. She didn’t receive a letter that was sent home to parents because it was only given to her son’s father, who is in a separate household.
She reached out to the day care’s director Monday, who was out of the office for the day. She spoke with another employee who told her they were “sorry you were missed,” McDougal said.
Her son’s father had a conversation about the incident with the boy after receiving the letter, she said.
The boy’s response was, “I tell the mean teachers no.”
Documents say the abuse was finally revealed when a child told his mother that Gallagher had banged his head on a mat on Friday, Feb. 23.
The child’s mother reported it to the day care the next Monday, after which supervisors reviewed two days of video and fired Gallagher and Wendt that day.
Their report was sent to the state’s Department of Social Services, which then forwarded it to the Sioux Falls Police Department.
While Gallagher has sought legal counsel and did not speak to police, Wendt participated in a police interview on March 20.
There, Wendt told a detective that she did not know why she had been fired and that she “would never hurt a child.”
Wendt said she was unaware of a specific position children were required to sleep in, and said she “might have moved their arms” when asked if she’d ever adjusted a child.
The detective then told her that he’d seen video of the events, and asked Wendt if she wanted to watch them with him.
Wendt said no.
She told the detective that “things may have happened that day” because she was frustrated that the day care’s director had not removed a crying child from the room at her request.
Wendt later admitted that she had “lost it” on that Friday, documents say, and that in the year she’d been in the room she’d seen Gallagher do the same on multiple occasions and had “learned her behavior with children from her.”
When asked if he would see similar behavior from her on older video, Wendt told the detective “hopefully not.”
She also said that parents would probably not be happy with what they saw, and that she didn’t think she should be watching children right now.
McDougal had met both Gallagher and Wendt throughout her son’s time at the day care facility.
“The scary thing, they seemed like they were really nice,” she said. “They seemed decent, to the parents.”
McDougal and her son’s father had a conversation about whether to take their 3-year-old out of the day care, but decided to keep him enrolled.
“This could happen anywhere,” she said, adding she’s been checking on him more frequently Tuesday.
Annette Velazquez unenrolled her 3-year-old daughter from the day care Tuesday morning. Velazquez’s daughter started attending Little Blessings when she was about 4 months old. The girl, who had started going to the 3- and 4-year-old room in May, never had any issues going to day care until she started going to that room, Velazquez said.
Looking back, small things that could have been marked as red flags churn her stomach now.
“Sometimes when I dropped her off in the 3-year-old room, she would cry,” Velazquez said. “Those red flags come up. Everything comes to you later.”
Velazquez received the letter sent to parents last week saying two employees had been removed. She said it was vague, withholding details of why the employees were fired. She learned the details of the abuse in her daughter’s classroom through an Argus Leader article shared on her Facebook feed.
She, like McDougal, would have liked a more open, proactive approach from the day care. Velazquez understands that it’s unlikely the provider can dedicate someone to spending eight hours a day reviewing security footage, but she added that someone should have noticed something.
“I’m mad. I’m mad at them,” she said. “You don’t get 25 counts of child abuse in 10 days and nothing happened before that.”
Little Blessings was investigated in November 2017 when an employee was reported for not “using appropriate discipline techniques” in the toddler room, according to a Child Care Licensing Inspection Summary provided by the Department of Social Services. The staff member was removed from the day care.
In June 2017, a 4-year-old child was reportedly left unattended in a van for three minutes, according to the same licensing inspection summary. The day care changed the method of keeping track of children and started using new “tracking sheets,” according to the document.
Velazquez’s daughter didn’t say anything about her teachers before the story came out. When Velazquez asked her daughter about her teacher, the 3-year-old said, “Sometimes Miss Teresa gets mad at us.” The girl said that one time Gallagher “ripped my pretty (dress),” Velazquez said.
Child care centers with a capacity for 21 or more children do not require Sioux Falls Health Department registrations or permits but are required to register with the state.
These types of centers are inspected yearly, according to the Department of Social Services website.
Child Care Services licensing specialists address each complaint, said Tia Kafka with the Department of Social Services. If the complaint is sustained, that licensing specialist will work with the childcare provider on how to correct the issue and a deadline for the fix.
The complaint, its date and a brief description of the issue should be posted on the site’s inspection summary, which should be located in a visible spot at the facility.
The Volunteers of America issued the following statement on Facebook Monday:
“At the end of February, 2018, a parent raised a concern to staff at Volunteers of America, Dakotas. Volunteers of America, Dakotas immediately placed the involved staff on leave, investigated the concern, communicated with parents, and reported the matter to the authorities. The involved staff are no longer employed by Volunteers of America, Dakotas. Volunteers of America, Dakotas has been providing quality childcare for nearly 100 years in our community. We continue to be committed to the safety and well-being of the children in our care.”