The Ohio mother said the day care operator starved her child for hours at a time, didn’t change her diapers, left her with bruises and kept her strapped to a car seat all day.
But what at least two other families alleged in the case was even more shocking. Kimberly Hignite, they claimed, forced the kids to play a sex game called the “silly private game.”
McGrew and several other parents are now furious that the 52-year-old woman is about to walk out of jail — after a 30-day sentence handed down on July 15.
The families, who feel blindsided by a seemingly generous plea agreement, are warning parents to be vigilant, trust their intuition and fight for justice if they find themselves in a court battle involving their children. At least two of them are also considering civil lawsuits against the woman.
The Franklin County Clerk of Courts charged Hignite in July 2018 with five felony counts of gross sexual imposition and 17 counts of endangering children after authorities raided her Grove City daycare and found 23 children, ages 7 months to 5 years old, under the care of one adult. As part of a deal last month, she pleaded guilty to 14 of the misdemeanor counts while prosecutors dropped all other charges.
“We’re absolutely appalled,” McGrew told the Daily News in an interview.
The 29-year-old woman, along with two other mothers who spoke with The News, said prosecutors misled them during plea negotiations. The women said prosecutors led them to believe the judge would impose a harsher sentence, consider adding probation or requiring Hignite to register as a sex offender, which parents pleaded for in their victim impact statements.
Each child-endangering count in Ohio is punishable by up to 180 days in prison, so Hignite could technically have faced nearly seven years behind bars if Judge William Woods had ignored the joint recommendation by the defense attorney and prosecutors and imposed the maximum sentence.
Prosecuting attorney Jennifer Rausch has denied the allegations. Her office said in an emailed statement that the two families who had accused Hignite of inappropriately touching their kids chose not to testify in court.
“This office works with the parents of child sexual assault victims but respects their ultimate decision on whether or not their child will testify,” the statement reads. “The other option of issuing a warrant for the arrest of the parent to force cooperation and to bring the child to court is not pursued in that circumstance.”
Those two families felt that forcing their children to testify in open court “would create more harm or damage” to them, although one of them was willing to do so if the case came to a trial, according to prosecutors. They also said the families agreed with the plea and “understood what the sentence would be.”
“That plea agreement for Kimberly Hignite was reached after multiple discussions regarding the potential outcomes at trial versus a plea agreement,” prosecutors wrote. “Ultimately, we felt it was in the best interest of the children to move forward with this plea agreement so they would not have to testify.”
Katelyn Franklin, who had two children in Hignite’s day care for almost two years, said she was never asked if her family was OK with just 30 days.
“I think her sentence was a joke,” the 30-year-old mother told The News.
Melanie Rawlins, the first parent to go to the police, said she was one of the parents who agreed with the deal. She was frustrated by the outcome and the way prosecutors handled the case, but she said it was better than Hignite being found not guilty at a trial.
The 34-year-old social worker said her son and daughter began having behavioral issues at school, which they attended part-time, “almost immediately” after they started going to Hignite’s day care.
“He was coming in starving, drinking multiple glasses of water,” she said to The News. “At the same time, my daughter had become really quiet and withdrawn, which is the opposite of what she is.”
Defense attorney Samuel Shamansky called the agreement “extremely fair” and insisted his client never touched those children. The lawyer, who has known Hignite’s family for years, said the deal was the best outcome because “there was no evidence” to support the sexual imposition charges.
“This was absolutely a super decent resolution for everybody,” he told The News
The judge did not return requests for comment.
The so-called silly private game cited by parents reportedly involved sexual touching and a board with pictures of private parts and a red spinner. Hignite, who is set to get out of jail Aug. 19, has denied those allegations.
Rawlins urged parents to trust their suspicions no matter how trivial they may be. She said she regrets feeling like she needed proof before pulling her kids out of Hignite’s home.
“Now I think back and I think, I could take them out if I don’t like the color of her paint,” Rawlins said. “It doesn’t matter. They’re my kids and I have the right to do that.
“I would encourage any parent that if they ever feel something is not right, don’t question that. Do what’s right for their kid. I wish I had done it sooner.”
“Listen to your gut,” she said. “If your gut tells you that something is wrong, (it) probably is.”