For a young family, finding child care for a baby can be an emotional, stressful time. It’s likely the first time that new parents are handing over the care of their child to someone else, in many cases a stranger. It’s the ultimate level of trust, and when a nanny or daycare worker violates that trust by abusing a child, it creates national headlines as disturbing as they are despicable.
“You see these horror stories on TV, and it’s like a surreal feeling when it happens to you,” Whitney Matney, a 28-year-old mother from Springdale, Arkansas, told ABC News' "20/20."
In October 2012, Matney and her husband Chris were looking for a nanny for their 11-month-old daughter, Raylee. Matney posted her search on Facebook, and she said an old high school classmate, Melissa Medema, answered her callout.
“She responded, ‘I’m very interested. Do you mind if I meet with you?’” Matney said.
Despite feeling some relief to find an acquaintance interested in the job, Matney still vetted Medema. She ran a background check, spoke with one reference, and had Medema come over to try her out with her daughter.
“She would talk to Raylee, play with her. Raylee seemed to really take to her. So I ended up hiring her,” Matney said.
It seemed like she had found a good fit for Raylee, but from the very first day Medema worked, Raylee began acting strange, Matney said.
“The day Melissa started working there, when I cross the threshold into her bedroom she just started screaming. And I just thought, you know, she’s tired, she’s getting sick,” Matney said.
And there were other signs. Matney said Medema would claim Raylee was taking four-hour naps during the day.
“She would sleep an hour, hour and a half, never four hours,” Matney said. “The idea popped into my head, I wonder if she’s giving her like Benadryl to make her sleep during the day. And then I thought, oh my gosh, I’m just being a crazy first-time mom, I've got to stop thinking like that and not trusting anything.”
Another warning sign, about two weeks in, was that Raylee would scream and run and cling to either her or her husband when Medema would show up for work, said Matney, who called the doctor to check in about the behavior, and it was chalked up to separation anxiety.
To some, these may seem like obvious warning signs, but for anyone in the trenches of taking care of your first child, interpreting exactly what is wrong and why is like learning a new language. But there was one suspicious thing going on in the Matney home that would raise the antennae of any parent. Their house was suddenly very clean, a little too clean.
“Our house was always so clean and spotless, and I know that when I watch Raylee I can get approximately a half of a room clean before I have to help her with stuff, especially at that point in time,” Matney said. “I didn’t understand how she could be cleaning so much and so well, while still attending to all of Raylee’s needs.”
So roughly four and a half weeks in, Matney installed a clock-radio nanny cam in their living room.
“I put up this camera, thinking, maybe she’s leaving her in her bouncer a little too long.”
When she got home, after the first day the camera was rolling, Matney said she knew something terrible was going on before she even watched a frame of video.
“I looked over and I saw the camera siting there. And it was facing the wall. I immediately -- my heart just leapt in my throat,” she said. At some point, the nanny camera had apparently been discovered, and the lens had been turned to face the wall and not the room. Matney began to watch the day’s recordings, and her worst fears were realized. The nanny was leaving Raylee in the bouncer for two hours, Matney said.
In addition, there was video of Medema spanking Raylee, and worst of all, violently shaking her like a rag doll. Matney was suddenly worried her daughter may have unseen injuries, and incensed at the woman she trusted with her daughter.
“There’s a level of crazy that exists in a mother that you don’t know is there,” said Matney.
After watching the video, frantic, Whitney called police and rushed her daughter to the emergency room. Fortunately, Raylee checked out physically unharmed. Two days later. Medema showed up for work again, and was met by police.
Matney said she was racked by guilt over what more she could have done to prevent Medema from ever working for her in the first place, and not picking up on the warning signs earlier.
Because Raylee wasn't physically injured, Medema was allowed to plead guilty to endangering the welfare of a minor. In Arkansas, it’s a class D felony, the least serious level. Medema was given 90 days in jail, and three years probation. When ABC News found Medema outside her Springdale apartment complex and asked for her side, she refused to comment.
Matney said the sentence was too lenient, but the biggest problem she had with the plea was that it allowed Medema to take advantage of Arkansas Act 346, which gives first offenders who've pleaded guilty and are sentenced to probation the chance to have their record expunged once they complete their probation.
After some digging, Matney discovered that once someone like Medema had her record expunged, if she wanted to nanny again a family could have no idea she was ever convicted of her crimes.
“The fact that this monster -- there’s no other way to describe her, you know -- if this monster can walk around, watch other children and have no ramifications at the end of four years, it’s just beyond insane,” Matney said.
A family could unknowingly hire someone with Medema's past because aside from sex offenders, there’s no publicly accessible online registry of child abusers in this country.
“I’m trying to keep other people from being subjected to, well, Melissa, and other people who have done this type of thing and had their record expunged. I think that their faces need to be out there, at least for parents,” said Matney.
Raylee is now a happy and healthy 3-year-old. Matney, now a lawyer and a mom on a mission, has been working with Arkansas lawmakers, Representative Greg Leding and Senator Jon Woods, to try and help other families avoid nightmare nannies before a camera is even turned on.
“In 2015, we’re going to send out a bill asking that they actually implement the child abuse registry. Arkansas will be the first state to have one, if it passes,” she said, adding she hopes it will motivate other people to lobby their state representatives into creating similar registries.
“I want all of the states to adopt it. What I want is for anybody who has been criminally convicted of child abuse, or any crime against a child, that they be listed on that registry so that parents can check before they leave their children with a babysitter, a nanny, a neighbor,” she said.