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Daycare Drama: When Does a Prank Become Felony Child Abuse?

By Catherine Hodder, Esq. on November 14, 2022 2:00 PM

When does a prank go too far? If you don a “Scream" mask (the one used in the 1996's movie Scream) to scare people, it may be harmless. But what if you do it to toddlers? That is a different story.

This actually happened at the Li'l Blessings Child Care & Learning Center in Hamilton, Mississippi. Five day care workers dressed up in the masks as part of a “prank." The would-be “pranksters” chased and shouted at the children. Viral videos on social media show terrified children running from the adults.

The day care owner promptly fired the day care workers for their “practical joke,” but their trouble didn't end there. They are now facing charges of felony child abuse. One of the employees is also charged with failure to report abuse under Mississippi's mandatory reporting laws.

What Is Felony Child Abuse?

Child abuse refers to physical or emotional harm to a child, such as endangerment, neglect, sexual abuse, or abandonment. What makes child abuse a criminal offense is if it was intentional. For example, a day care worker accidentally bumping into a child is not a deliberate act. However, a day care worker pushing a child is an intentional act. You can then argue that the prank of wearing scary masks and screaming and chasing children intentionally caused the children emotional harm.

And this is not a misdemeanor or a “minor” crime. Under Mississippi child abuse laws, the legal consequences for a felony child abuse conviction range from a minimum of two years in prison to a life sentence, depending on the harm caused.

What Are Mandatory Reporting Laws?

Most states have mandatory reporting laws charging people in certain areas of responsibility or professions with the duty to report suspected child abuse. For example, medical professionals, teachers, social workers, and day care workers must follow mandatory reporting laws. Meaning if they see or suspect child abuse, they must report it to the authorities.

And some states require anyone to report suspected child abuse. The Child Welfare Information Gateway publishes a guide on mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect. Call the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) if you need to report child abuse.

Mississippi's mandatory reporting law requires day care workers or any person who has reasonable cause to believe that a child is abused or neglected to report it.

Can the Parents Sue for a Prank?

In this case, the state will determine the criminal charges against the day care workers. However, the parents of the terrorized children may have a civil claim for the intentional infliction of emotional distress. Generally, a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress must meet the following elements:

  • Extreme or outrageous conduct
  • Done intentionally or recklessly
  • Causing severe emotional distress

The test for extreme or outrageous conduct is whether the behavior exceeds the possible bounds of decency. Meaning it is not merely obnoxious or offensive. For example, if the day care workers pulled the prank on the parents, it's much more likely to be considered a harmless prank. However, what may be acceptable for an adult may not be for a child. A court will take that into account, just like they would for other pranks that lead to serious injuries, like swatting or prank calls.

The intent or recklessness element means the day care workers intended to cause severe emotional distress, or at least they could have known that scaring toddlers might result in severe emotional distress. Severe emotional distress means that the distress manifests physically, such as becoming anxious or having difficulty sleeping.

Can the Parents Sue the Day Care if They Signed a Waiver?

Usually, when you enroll your child in day care, you sign a waiver that you will not hold the day care responsible for harm to your children. However, it may not hold up in court. A parent can't waive their child's right to sue. And a day care could be liable for negligence if they had a duty of care, breached the duty, the day care caused the injury, and there was resulting harm. And remember in this case “injury” does not only mean physical injury.

The day care owner was reportedly unaware of the prank until videos surfaced online. She fired the employees involved in the prank. However, under the doctrine of “respondeat superior," an employer is liable for the actions of their employees so long as the actions are within the scope of employment.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

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