Parents of a toddler who was allegedly duct-taped to his nap mat by a Willow Park day-care center co-owner filed suit Tuesday against the Heart2Heart Montessori Academy.
Kristi and Brad Galbraith allege in a lawsuit filed in Parker County that Heart2Heart was negligent in properly carrying out its responsibilities and supervising employees, resulting in injury and pain to their 21/2-year-old son.
The allegations surfaced June 17 after an employee, Hannah Tidwell, called Kristi Galbraith advising her that her son and another boy had been forcefully secured by duct tape to their napping mats by one of the facility’s owners, Pamela Decker.
“When she contacted me, the first thing she said was, ‘I wanted you to know we called CPS today.’ Of course, I felt sick to my stomach, probably wailed out loud in the car,” Kristi Galbraith said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I asked her ‘What do you mean? What happened?’ Then she proceeded to tell me what actually happened to our son that day.”
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Tidwell then sent Kristi Galbraith three photographs that she’d snapped of the boy, secured to the mat with the thick, silver tape.
She told the Galbraiths that when she confronted Decker about her actions, Decker responded: “Do not say anything about this. I know this [is] illegal but felt it was necessary.”
The allegations sparked investigations by the state’s Child Care Licensing and Willow Park police. Both investigations remained open as of Tuesday, officials said.
“We have interviewed all the parents involved. We have begun interviewing some of the employees and former employees,” said Willow Police Chief Brad Johnson said. “We hope to wrap this up in the next couple of weeks and present it to the district attorney’s office. It probably will be presented to the grand jury without any arrest on our end. That’s the plan as it stands today.”
Heart2Heart remains open.
The lawsuit names Heart2Heart, its management company, Decker, and Decker’s daughter, Ashlea J. Pena, who is co-owner of the facility. The suit seeks between $200,000 and $1 million in monetary relief.
Jeff Rasansky, the Galbraiths’ attorney, called the alleged behavior an “unconscionable breach of faith that parents place in child-care providers” and said the lawsuit was necessary to ensure the incident is properly investigated “so that no other child is ever treated this way.”
“Unfortunately, I think it happens a lot more often than we care to think.” Rasansky said. “Parents have to take a leap of faith in leaving their kids at day-care centers and are always going to believe that folks are going to take care of their kids the same way they’d take of their own and oftentimes may not trust their instincts or gut.”
Heart2Heart owners did not immediately respond to a phone message left at the business Tuesday seeking comment.
An employee’s concern
The lawsuit states that in her talks with the Galbraiths, Tidwell told the parents that Decker had previously used duct tape on a little girl.
Tidwell said she had witnessed other “abusive behavior” at the facility, including the locking of a child in a room alone for an extended time, withholding water from children, and limiting the children to two water breaks per day so the staff did not need to change as many diapers, according to the lawsuit.
She told the Galbraiths that in addition to contacting them, she had quit her job and notified Child Protective Services.
The lawsuit states that the parents went to the day-care center together and confronted Decker about the accusation. Decker neither admitted nor denied the accusation and “appeared to shrug off the accusation as implausible.”
“It was only after the Galbraiths advised her that they had copies of photographs of their son duct taped to the nap mat that Ms. Decker became visibly shaken; not distraught with what she had done but rather distressed that she had been caught,” the lawsuit states.
Then, stuttering and mumbling, Decker repeatedly apologized to the Galbraiths, saying that she should not have done this, the lawsuit alleges.
The Gailbraiths immediately pulled their son from the school and alerted other parents. Within days, they were served with a “cease and desist” letter from the academy’s attorneys, threatening “serious penalties and damages” if the couple continued “making false statements,” according to the lawsuit.
“At that time, Heart2Heart was more concerned about protecting their reputation and reducing any negative fallout from the truthful statements that had been disseminated to other concerned parents than actually addressing the aggrieved parents’ claims specifically,” the lawsuit alleges.
A day after the confrontation with Decker, the lawsuit states that Decker called another parent, Lorrie Almquist, saying she wanted to update her on what was occurring at the school.
A day earlier, Almquist had received two emails from Decker — one requesting that she, too, order a weighted blanket for her son and the other, informing her that Tidwell was making false accusations against the school and was no longer an employee.
In the phone call, Decker asked Almquist if she had talked to any parents or the “father of the other little boy.”
Almquist, unaware of what Decker was referring to, said no.
“Ms. Decker advised Ms. Almquist that Ms. Tidwell was pregnant and hormonal and saying crazy things about the school,” the lawsuit states.
Decker went on to admit to Ms. Almquist that while she was walking through a classroom, Decker noticed that Almquist’s son and another little boy were not lying down and napping and “that she got frustrated.”
“Ms. Decker then told Ms. Almquist that she did something ‘incredibly stupid and one of the dumbest things she had ever done’ and decided to duct tape her son and the other little boy to their nap mats. Decker apologized to Ms. Almquist and advised her that other parents ‘were freaking out’ and that the Dad of the other little boy had sent out a ‘big email,’ ” the lawsuit alleges. “Ms. Decker told Ms. Almquist that ‘this whole thing has been blown out of proportion.’”
Meeting with parents
The day-care center’s owners held a June 19 meeting with parents to address rumors and accusations going around and inform them about the investigation by Child Care Licensing.
Decker spoke briefly during the meeting, according to the lawsuit, telling parents she would be “100 percent honest” and tell them the truth.
She then recounted for parents her repeated attempts to get “the little boy that the father is so upset about” to lay down at nap time and the “very foolish decision” she made after he would not. She told the parents she got duct tape from the facility’s kitchen, asked the boy to lie down, then pulled the blanket over him and placed a strip of the tape across the blanket.
“He was quiet. He never cried. He never complained. He was not in any anguish. … He was not harmed in any way, emotionally, physically, at all,” Decker allegedly told the parents, according to the lawsuit.
“It was stupid. It was inappropriate. … I can’t change it and I’m sorry for that,” Decker told parents, according to the lawsuit.
Decker told the parents that after the boy fell asleep, she “pulled the [duct tape] off the blanket because that is all it was touching. … It wasn’t touching anything else,” the lawsuit alleges.
“However, the pictures show a completely different story. The duct tape was tightly wrapped and tucked around the nap mat causing [the boy] to be illegally restrained to his mat,” the lawsuit states.
Decker told the parents she had done the same thing to another boy in another classroom and that she “self-reported” her actions to the day-care center’s director and Child Protective Services.
The attorneys argue in the lawsuit that Decker only “self-reported” after she was instructed to by her daughter and had learned of the photographic evidence in the case.
The lawsuit points out that other parents have reported that their children were extremely thirsty upon being picked up each day and had behavioral issues that have since improved since being removed from the school.
In a news release, Rasansky’s law firm states that the day-care center has since implemented changes, including the installation of cameras and regular liquid breaks for the children and that, according to the school, Decker is no longer working at the center.