Melanie Rawlins' son was just 5 years old when he told her a disturbing secret.
Every day after she dropped him and his 3-year-old sister off with a well-respected babysitter in the community, they would endure horrific abuse.
“As soon as they got there, she would put them in a room and they were given a blanket and they were told to lay on the floor and shut up and if they didn’t shut up, she would sit on top of them, put a blanket over their head and smother them and tell them that she would only get off if they would shut up,” Rawlins, a licensed clinical social worker, told Oxygen.com. “And then if they didn’t shut up then, they would end up getting put in the basement in the dark by themselves.”
Rawlins said the children were also given a pink medicine, which she believes was likely Benadryl, forced to share just one cup of water with all of the other children at the home, and given very little food. She’d later learn her two children were also allegedly forced to play a sickening game they knew as the “silly private game.”
“She would make them spin a spinner that had pictures of private parts on it and whatever private part it landed on, either they had to touch that on one another, or on her, or she touched it on them,” Rawlins said.
She was “horrified” and immediately contacted authorities, who launched an investigation into babysitter Kimberly Hignite.
Several months later when investigators raided Hignite's home, they found a total of 23 children in her unlicensed day care. Hignite wasn't at home and all of the children had been left in the care of Hignite’s 71-year-old mother, according to The Columbus Dispatch.
In June 2018, Hignite was indicted on five counts of gross sexual imposition and 17 counts of child endangerment for allegedly engaging in sexual misconduct with children and severely neglecting others in her care.
But earlier this month, after reaching a deal with prosecutors to plead guilty to 14 counts of child endangerment, Hignite received a sentence of just 30 days in jail.
“I just feel really disappointed and angry because I just don’t feel like we got justice,” Rawlins said.
She and other parents are now speaking out about the shocking sentence, which doesn’t require Hignite to register as a sex offender or prevent her from watching children in the future.
“I was absolutely appalled. I was very shocked too. My mouth genuinely like fell to the floor,” parent Abbey McGrew, whose daughter was kept strapped into a car seat all day for a year as she sat alone, told Oxygen.com.
McGrew said that although prosecutors had reached a plea deal that included a recommended sentence of 30 days, the parents believed that after hearing their victim impact statements, the judge would choose to give her a longer sentence and consider their request to institute probation or registration on the sex offender list.
“This person had the power to do justice for the kids and they didn’t, and that was just a slap in the face,” McGrew. “So, we all felt defeated.”
An Established Sitter In The Community
From all outward appearances, Hignite, 52, appeared to be a well respected sitter in the community, with decades of experience and endorsements from other parents.
Parent Katie Franklin told Oxygen.com that when she found out she was pregnant with twin girls she immediately began to worry about who would care for the girls while she went to work each day.
She got Hignite’s name from a neighbor and another friend on Facebook and arranged an interview at Hignite’s Grove City home.
“The house was immaculately clean. It is a beautiful home and it was just her there and she was so nice and it seemed like our families had a lot in common, interest-wise,” Franklin said. “We asked her all the questions that I felt needed to be asked and she had the right answers for all of them, so I didn’t have any red flags at that point.”
Franklin said she also checked Hignite’s references before agreeing to bring her twins to the sitter and “everything seemed legit.”
Rawlins got Hignite’s name from Hignite’s daughter, who she knew, and also worked at the time with the Hignite’s brother. The two talked for nearly an hour and a half during an interview that left her feeling comfortable.
“It just seemed like a great fit for us,” she said.
Signs Of Trouble
Once the families began sending their children to Hignite there were very few signs that anything might be wrong. The children in her care ranged from 7 months to 5 years old at the time of her arrest, meaning many of the children were too young to fully communicate what was going on in the home.
But, there were some small indications of abuse.
Franklin said she was a stickler about when her twin daughters got their bottles and arrived at the home one day to find that her girls were being fed about an hour late. She discussed the issue with Hignite, who promised to stick to the schedule more closely in the future.
On another occasion, she said an older girl under the sitter’s care helped her to the car with her twins one day. Franklin casually asked the child whether her girls had gotten out of their car seats all day and the 9-year-old surprisingly told her that they had only when they were being changed.
Franklin was furious and her husband contacted Hignite, who told the family that the girl was mistaken and had only been at the home that day for about an hour.
She told Franklin the kids were never kept in the car seat that long and that she loved children and would never do that to a baby.
“She made me feel like there’s no way that could have happened,” she said.
McGrew said she was becoming increasingly concerned that her 1-year-old daughter, Lennox, was falling physically behind her peers and was unable to roll over, sit up, talk or crawl.
“She didn’t know how to do anything,” she said.
She’d later discover that the reason for her daughter’s delays was that she was being confined to her car seat all day long.
McGrew said that when investigators arrived at Hignite’s home, her daughter was one of several children being kept in a separate room with the door closed, strapped into the car seat.
“I thought for a year that there was something actually wrong with my kid,” she said.
She had been suspicious when her daughter always seemed to ready to go home and was waiting in her car seat whenever she arrived from work to pick her up, but when she questioned Hignite about how long her daughter had been in the car seat, she said the 52-year-old got extremely upset and rude.
She never imagined her daughter was being confined all day.
“Your child can’t defend (herself) and you can’t do anything for her,” McGrew said of the abuse.
Franklin's young daughter had started pulling out clumps of her hair while at the sitter's. A pediatrician would later tell the family it had likely been the result of anxiety.
Rawlins started her two children at Hignite's day care in September 2017 and soon started hearing reports that her 5-year-old son, who is autistic, was having uncharacteristic behavioral problems at school.
“All of a sudden I am getting phone calls from (his teacher) at work and emails concerned because he’s acting out in class and he’s always been a model student,” Rawlins said. “He’s like throwing things and hitting kids and she had to evacuate the classroom once because he was throwing chairs.”
Rawlins and her husband were starting to get concerned—but it wasn’t until an October conference with teachers that her worries escalated.
“She said he’s coming in, he’s soaked in sweat, his face is bright red, he’s drinking like 15 cups of water in an hour and he’s saying he’s starving,” she recalled.
Rawlins went home and began to ask her children specific questions about their day and that’s when her children began to tell her about being kept in rooms of the house and being forced to keep quiet.
“They did not get any food or drink. She would make them food, but they all had to share it,” she said.
After just six weeks, she removed her children from the home and reported the abuse to children’s services, but she said she never heard back from the agency.
Allegations Of Sexual Abuse
It wasn’t until months later in February that Rawlins would learn of the alleged sexual abuse after their current sitter told the family the children were discussing the “silly private game” they used to play at “Miss Kim’s.”
She called children’s services again to report the sexual abuse, and also called a children’s advocacy center that does forensic interviews in sexual abuse cases.
“They were able to even describe what (Hignite's) private area looked like to the forensic interviewer,” she said.
The Franklin County Sheriff’s Office launched an investigation and raided the home in May. Investigators found a total of 23 children in the unlicensed day care when they arrived, but all three parents told Oxygen.com they had never seen more than five or six children in the home at a time.
They later learned that Hignite meticulously staggered the arrival and drop off times of each child in her care to conceal the number of children staying at the home. After the children arrived, she would put them in different rooms and close the door, instructing them to stay quiet.
“The only way you could have known is if you parked across the street from her house and watched. Like there’s no way you would have known,” Franklin said. “My husband dropped off every morning. He went inside her home every morning and spoke to her and her mother and spent some time with the girls before he said goodbye.”
Franklin was home on surgical leave when she said she got a text from Hignite in May telling her she needed to come and pick up both her girls from the home.
When she arrived, the place was swarming with law enforcement officers and other frantic parents trying to collect their children.
“It was awful. Honestly, it was the worst day of my life,” she said.
Hignite Reaches A Plea Deal
Christy McCreary, public information officer for the Franklin County District Attorney, told Oxygen.com that initially Hignite faced charges of gross sexual imposition and child endangering based on allegations from three different groups and families.
Two of the family groups had children who had been improperly touched, but one of the families later decided not to cooperate with the prosecutor’s office and refused to testify in court, McCreary said.
“This office works with the parents of child sexual assault victims but respects their ultimate decision on whether or not their child will testify,” she said.
The remaining family—which Rawlins identified as hers—remained cooperative, but without the second unidentified family to back up the sexual assault allegations, it would have rested solely on the testimony of Rawlins’ children.
“That plea agreement for Kimberly Hignite was reached after multiple discussions regarding the potential outcomes at trial versus a plea agreement,” McCreary said. “Ultimately, we felt it was in the best interest of the children to move forward with this agreement so they would not have to testify.”
Rawlins said she was approached about the deal and agreed to it because she was afraid if Hignite was found not guilty at trial, the indictment would be expunged and other parents would never be aware of the allegations against her.
“I can’t undo what happened to my kids, but I can try my best to make sure this woman never hurts another kid again,” Rawlins said. “At that point, I felt like if I take this risk, is it for just us or is this risking the other kids that she could hurt in the future?”
She decided to agree to the plea and knew it contained a recommended sentence of 30 days, but said prosecutors encouraged her and other families to urge the judge to issue a longer sentence.
“I did not expect him to agree with the 30 days at all,” she said, adding that the judge never addressed the families' request to require her to register as a sex offender or their request that she be placed on probation after her release.
“It’s like the judge did not even listen to anything,” she said.
According to McCreary, all the families who cooperated “were aware” of the 30-day sentence before the plea and were in agreement. However, Franklin and McGrew told Oxygen.com they were never consulted about the plea and only learned of the details that morning before court.
“Had I been asked I would have said no. I do not think this is justice for our kids. It’s a joke,” Franklin said.
Rawlins said she also believed Hignite would have to serve out her sentence in the Franklin County jail but didn’t learn until she was in court that she was being allowed to serve out the sentence in a pay-to-stay facility in Richland County, which she described as a resort compared to the county jail.
“I was furious because we didn’t get justice in this at all and then the little piece, the tiny little piece that you promised us, we’re not even getting that,” she said.
Hignite is currently serving out her sentence and has moved from the area. When she is released, there will be no restrictions in place to keep her from watching other children.
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