Thief River Falls day care owner accused of striking boy
When James Sundstrom’s fiancée picked up their 4-year-old son at a Thief River Falls day care Tuesday afternoon, he said she found the boy waiting in the entry with tears and a bloody nose.
The boy also had two black eyes and “a huge bruise on his butt, which is in the form of a hand print,” Sundstrom told the Herald.
On Friday, Heidi Senum, owner and operator of the home-based day care, was charged with malicious punishment of a child in state district court in Thief River Falls.
Her state day care license was suspended effective Thursday “due to the serious nature of the report under investigation,” according to a letter Senum received from the state Office of Inspector General.
Pennington County Attorney Al Rogalla provided a copy to the Herald, saying he wanted the public aware of the allegations. “We want to ensure the safety of all children in day cares in the county.”
Senum, 39, referred questions from the Herald to her attorney, Kevin Duffy, who did not return calls Thursday and Friday.
Deputy Police Chief Craig Mattson interviewed Senum Tuesday and wrote in his statement of probable cause that, “before Senum was read her Miranda warning or was asked any questions, Senum told (Mattson) that she had already admitted to hitting (the boy).” The admission came during an earlier interview at the day care with Melinda Treitline-Sax, who oversees state licensing of child care facilities for the county, according to Mattson.
Boy refused food
Sundstrom contacted the Herald Thursday about his son, who is their only child, saying he’s concerned other children had been or might be hit by Senum.
According to Sundstrom, the day care owner called his fiancée, Melissa Loons, at lunchtime Tuesday and told Loons to pick up the boy “‘before I hurt him.’” At the day care, Loons found the crying boy with Senum’s teenage daughter, who said her mom held the boy down and hit him. Loons spoke with Senum, who also admitted she hit the boy.
After the Tuesday incident, Senum herself called Treitline-Sax, who visited the day care, Mattson’s report said. “During the conversation, Senum openly admitted to Treitline-Sax that (the boy) was refusing to eat Senum’s food, calling it ‘yucky.’”
Senum also told Treitline-Sax the boy was “crying and throwing a fit. Senum went on to openly admit that she lost control and spanked (the boy) approximately six times on the buttocks and one time across the face with an open hand,” the report said.
Photographs taken of the boy in the emergency room Tuesday and again on Wednesday “revealed a bruise under both eyes along with a scratch or cut above (his) lip,” the report said.
The charge against Senum is a gross misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $3,000 fine, if she were convicted.
It alleges Senum “did unlawfully and intentionally use unreasonable force or cruel discipline that was excessive under the circumstances causing less than substantial bodily harm... by spanking and slapping (him) for not eating.”
Senum is scheduled to be in court June 3.
Assistant County Attorney Kristin Hanson said state law generally reserves felony-level charges in such cases to “children under 4 and cases with major harm.”
There have been no previous criminal complaints from Senum’s day care, which has operated for about a decade, Hanson said.
The “immediate temporary suspension” of Senum’s license was for a “family child care” facility in a home, for 14 or fewer children, according to the state Department of Human Services, which posted the suspension on its website. Senum can appeal the suspension.
Sundstrom said it appeared there were about eight other children besides his son who went there.
Pennington County has about 60 licensed day cares.
Son ‘doing OK’
Sundstrom said his son “is doing OK.”
“He did have a CT scan,” and the preliminary results looked good, and doctors also ruled out a concussion, he said. “It could have been worse.”
The boy doesn’t appear to have been traumatized too much, Sundstrom said.
“He’s a little more aggressive than usual. I’m afraid that more of that will come out later,” he said. “We were sitting in bed with him the other day and he said, ‘Why did she shove pizza in my mouth? I don’t even like pizza.’”
Article written by Stephen J. Lee of the Grand Forks Herald