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Thief River Falls day care owner accused of bruising boy

The father of a 4-year-old boy in Thief River Falls says a day care owner there spanked and slapped his son this week, leaving him bruised and black-eyed.

This morning, a criminal charge of malicious punishment of a child was filed in state district court in Thief River Falls against Heidi Senum, owner and operator of the day care business in her home at 311 Knight Ave.

Senum’s state license to operate the “family child care home” was suspended effective early Thursday, “due to the serious nature of the report under investigation,” according to a letter dated May 15 to Senum from Mary Kelsey, supervisor of the licensing division of the Minnesota Office of Inspector General.

Pennington County Attorney Al Rogalla provided a copy of Kelsey’s letter to Senum to the Grand Forks 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,” Rogalla said.

Senum, 39, referred questions from the Herald to her attorney, Kevin Duffy, who did not return calls from the Herald Thursday and this morning. Senum has operated a day care in her home for about a decade, officials said.

According to the police statement of probable cause written by Deputy Chief Craig Mattson, Senum was driven Tuesday, after the incident, to the county law enforcement center for an interview with Mattson.

“Before Senum was read her Miranda warning or was asked any questions, Senum told (Mattson) that she had already admitted to hitting (the boy)” during an earlier interview at the day care with Melinda Treitline-Sax, who is in charge of child-care licensing for Pennington County Human Services, according to Mattson’s statement.

 James Sundstrom contacted the Herald Thursday about what he says happened to his son, saying he’s concerned other children had been, or might be, hit by Senum.

On Tuesday during the lunch hour, Senum called his fiancée, Melissa Loons, the mother of the boy, and said Loons had better pick up her son “‘before I hurt him,’” Sundstrom said.

When Loons arrived at the day care, the boy was waiting in the entry, crying and with a bloody nose, Sundstrom says.

One of Senum’s daughters, a teen, was with the boy and told Loons, “My mom held him down and hit him,” Sundstrom said. Loons asked to see Senum, who then told Loons, “‘I hit him,’” Sundstrom said.

Mattson’s police report appears to corroborate that of Sundstrom, saying Loons told them “Senum appeared to be in a very emotional state and openly admitted that she hit” the boy.

 The charge against Senum is a gross misdemeanor with a maximum penalty, if she were to be convicted, of a year in jail and a $3,000 fine.

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.”

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.

There are about 60 licensed day cares in the county.

The charge summons Senum to appear in court June 3 to answer the complaint.

By Stephen J. Lee

Forum News Service

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