January Neatherlin, 32, ran a childcare centre, Little Giggles, in the city of Bend, Oregon, for five years.
She reportedly told parents that they were not allowed to collect their children between 11:00 in the morning and 14:00 in the afternoon as it was nap time.
However, it has since emerged that Neatherlin used the time to do Crossfit, have a tanning session and at one point, also dropped her own kids at school.
According to The Oregonian, Neatherlin used the drug melatonin to put the seven children in her care to sleep to avoid them waking up and possibly hurting themselves.
The publication reports that Neatherlin’s scheme began to unravel in March 2017, after a former roommate and ex-boyfriend of hers contacted police.
It was discovered that she had lied about being a registered nurse. She also had a criminal record going back to 2007, where she was charged with “multiple instances of theft and identity theft”, reports say.
Some of her convictions were under the aliases January Livsey and January Brooks.
Court records say that Neatherlin had an “ongoing, systematic scheme of doing what she wanted and getting what she wanted, without any concern for the danger she was placing others in”.
The court also head anecdotes of close calls and actual harm encountered by children under her care.
According to one, an 11-month-old was rushed to hospital in 2014 with bleeding and swelling in her head. Court documents reported that the injuries were consistent with being shaken or struck repeatedly.
Another reported that a little girl had blisters in her mouth and on her shoulders when she was picked up. Neatherlin had reportedly overheated a bottle of milk in the microwave, but passed the injury off as spider bites.
Others reported cases of nappy rash, scratching and evidence of poor nutrition.
There were also reports of disruption to sleep cycles.
The Food and Drug Administration regulates dietary supplements such as melatonin, and although it is relatively safe, it is not completely harmless.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says that there have been no “reports of significant side effects of melatonin in children”, with some even offering “sleep support” gummies with melatonin for children.
The Mayo Clinic, however, advises that melatonin only be taken in consultation with a doctor. It is a hormone and can negatively interact with drugs that mitigate seizures, diabetes medication and “anticonvulsants in neurologically disabled children”.
Fortunately, none of the children in Neatherlin’s care appear to have been permanently damaged.
Neatherlin denied ever striking a child in a statement she made just before she was sentenced.
“I loved all my day-care kids as my own, and I believe they loved me and enjoyed hanging out with me during the week,” she said tearfully.
She did, however, admit to doing wrong, saying “I failed you all. I let you all down”.
Parents called for the maximum sentence of 35 years imprisonment for Neatherlin, but Deschute County Circuit Judge Wells Ashby gave her 21 years and four months, in addition to some harsh words.
“There is something broken and something missing in you,” the Bend Bulletin reports the Judge as saying.
“It is sheer serendipity and chance that some of those kids were not killed,” Judge Ashby said.
Neatherlin also pleaded guilty to one count of third degree assault.