Day Care Operator Convicted

Saturday, November 21, 2015
North Haverhill — Jurors on Friday found the operator of an Enfield day care guilty of three misdemeanors, including reckless conduct, in connection with the 2014 death of a 4-year-old girl.

In addition to reckless conduct, 56-year-old Mary Ellen Burritt was found guilty of two counts of operating an unlicensed day care out of her Lockehaven Road home. It was there on March 24, 2014, that Willa Shine Clark was choked when her parka snagged on a wooden lean-to structure. She died from her injuries two days later at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

Willa was one of four children under the age of 5 in Burritt’s care that day who were allowed to play unattended in the backyard while Burritt cared for an infant inside the home.

Willa’s family held hands as the verdict was read in Grafton Superior Court and took turns hugging the prosecutor, Grafton County Attorney Lara Saffo. Burritt was quiet during the proceedings and immediately went into a meeting with her family and her attorneys following the verdict.

“We greatly appreciate the attentiveness of the jury during this trial and obvious hard work in reaching a verdict,” Saffo wrote in a prepared statement. “While this does not bring Willa back, it is a measure of justice.”

Burritt will be sentenced at a later date. Under state law, each Class A misdemeanor charge can carry a jail sentence of less than one year and a fine of $2,000 or less.

To prove Burritt was guilty of reckless conduct, prosecutors needed to provide evidence she engaged in “conduct which places or may place another in danger of serious bodily injury.” Prosecutors argued she did just that by leaving the children unattended in the backyard that day.

Defense attorneys argued that Burritt provided adequate supervision to the children, and said during the trial that Burritt could hear and see them from where they were playing.

“We feel our case was not recklessness,” said lead defense attorney Peter Decato, who said he respected the jury’s decision. He said he worried about the precedent it sets for other day care providers, and what repercussions they’ll face if a provider turns attention away for a moment.

Decato said he thought prosecutors were trying to send a “message” to other day care providers by prosecuting the case.

Saffo disputed Decato’s characterization of the state’s motive in bringing charges. “This case is about Willa first and foremost,” she said.

Though Willa’s parents, Mike and Cara Clark, didn’t comment on the case following Friday’s verdict, they issued a written statement though Saffo:

“If you are interested in becoming a day care provider, or finding a day care provider, please avail yourself of the services of New Hampshire’s Department of Health and Human Services Child Care Licensing Unit, as well as the Department of Health and Human Services Child Development Bureau.”

Burritt was licensed by the state of New Hampshire from 2003 to April 2009. During the trial, Melissa Clement, chief of the state Child Care Licensing Unit, testified Burritt should have been licensed in 2014 based on the number of children in her care.

If there are more than three unrelated children in the home, state regulations require a center to be licensed. Licensed day care facilities cannot allow children under age 5 to be outside without an adult.

Defense attorneys also argued the state didn’t send Burritt a six-month reminder, three-month reminder, second notice, notice of lapse nor final notice, all required, when she didn’t reapply in 2009. Cara Clark testified she was under the “assumption” Burritt was licensed when started taking her children there in 2010.

Judge Peter Bornstein called for a pre-sentencing investigation report after the verdict was read, a move he admitted was unusual for misdemeanor offenses but necessary because of Willa’s death. The report will be compiled by a probation officer and will advise Bornstein in issuing a sentence.

Saffo said she isn’t yet sure what her office will recommend for a sentence.

Decato said the death and trial has taken a toll on Burritt, and that her family and friends will now gather and support the woman he said “lived nothing but an exemplary life” as they await sentencing.

Since Willa’s death, Cara Clark has been working to celebrate her daughter’s life by fundraising for Willa’s Nook, a children’s area in the proposed Enfield Public Library.

Donations for the reading and activity room have reached nearly $66,200, according to an online fundraising website.

In addition to Willa’s Nook, Cara Clark has been behind a push to pass legislation that would make negligence leading to a child’s injury or death a Class B felony. If passed, the legislation also would close a loophole that currently keeps some unlicensed providers from being subject to the law.

“Willa’s Law” is scheduled to go before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the next 60 days, Cara Clark said in a Friday evening email to the Valley News.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.