WAUKESHA, Wis. — A worker at a daycare center called The Lawrence School in Waukesha was criminally charged Thursday after prosecutors say she slammed a child down into his mattress and made it hard for the victim to breathe.
The public found out about the alleged incident after dozens of Waukesha police officers arrived at the center and made four arrests in total on Wednesday.
48-year-old Heather M. Miller was charged with physical abuse of a child - intentionally causing harm and second-degree recklessly endangering safety. The charges carry a maximum prison sentence of 16 years plus thousands of dollars in fines. Miller attended her initial appearance in Waukesha County Court on Thursday.
"I say that it's awful. It seems to me indicate that there's so much awful that I don't even know how to explain it," said court commissioner David Herring. "People trust the most important thing they have, the reason they go to work everyday the reason they do things in life, to places just like this to ensure their loved ones are taken care of. When you abuse that trust that is aggravated factor."
A criminal complaint released Thursday states the mother of the victim spoke with police. The victim was in the care of The Lawrence School and alleges his lead teacher, Heather Miller, abused him while in the classroom.
A witness told investigators they were working in the infant room with Miller on Aug. 17 when they saw Miller feeding the victim, who has medical needs that cause issues when eating. The witness says they saw Miller speak to the victim, telling him he was "physically disgusting" and that the way he was eating was disgusting.
The witness continued, saying that during naptime they were once again working with Miller. The witness says when the victim stood up in a crib, Miller walked over and set up two mattresses and a Pack and Play baby crib in a way that blocked the view from the security camera to the crib.
Miller then allegedly lifted up the victim and slammed his face down into the crib, the witness said. Miller used so much force that the victim's whole body bounced up and then back down, according to the criminal complaint.
The victim started crying. That's when Miller held down the victim into the mattress that the victim struggled to breathe, the witness said. They told investigators they saw Miller place one of her hands on the back of the victim's neck and placed another on the child's back, pushing him into the mattress. The child started to make a wheezing sound as he struggled to breathe. Miller allegedly held the victim there for around 30 seconds. The witness said they feared for the child's life and told other staff what happened.
The witness told what happened to the facility director and assistant director, but they did not head to the room. Instead, they watched security footage of the room, and the officials made a comment about how Miller looked upset, the witness said.
The witness eventually went back to the room and noticed that the victim's face looked red, his body was hot and he was sweating profusely.
When no action was taken against Miller, the witness wrote a written statement to the daycare. When the victim's mother picked him up, the witness told the mother what happened, saying that "her child was not safe being cared for by the defendant" and urged the victim to move rooms. Officials obliged the mother's request to move rooms.
Investigators say they learned the State Licensing Specialist made an unannounced visit to the Lawrence School on Sept. 2 and Miller denied slamming the victim down or restricting his breathing. The owner of the daycare also denied knowledge of the incident.
On Sept. 14, Waukesha police executed a search warrant at the daycare and took Miller into custody. Police say Miller denied the allegations. Instead, she said the victim had been crying in his crib, she picked him up and put him back down on his mattress. She said she rubbed his back to get him to go to sleep.
During Miller's appearance on Thursday, the prosecution noted a prior violation through the licensing agency in April in which Miller was advised and warned against her "rigid nap schedule" that she had in place in her infant room.
A hearing in Waukesha County Court was scheduled for Sept. 19.
Authorities did not release the age of the victim.
Renee Martinez does not know Miller but had her kids enrolled at The Lawrence School in the past. Martinez said she loved the center, would volunteer there, and believed she had a good relationship with the staff. However, that all changed when Martinez said her son was left outside and unattended in December 2018.
"I found out from (a) employee that my son a couple (of) weeks prior was left outside alone and unattended, and he had just turned three," Martinez said. "Two weeks had passed so to this day, still don’t know what may have happened to him. He was found by a father that was passing the playground and heard a little boy crying."
Martinez said a state employee determined her son was outside for no less than 30 minutes and no more than an hour.
Martinez felt alone in her experience, but she wanted to speak publicly amid the recent allegations to encourage others to come forward.
"Speak up if you see something wrong. Speak up. Those are people’s children and we just have to protect everyone’s children as much as we can," Martinez said.