GREENFIELD — Chelsie Wise still cries about it, she said.

Sitting at the witness stand in Hancock Circuit Court, Wise told the judge about the anger and anxiety she and her husband have felt since their daughter’s babysitter, Greenfield native Terri VanAlst, was charged with battering and neglecting the child.

This week, a judge ordered VanAlst, 25, who pleaded guilty last month to a Level 5 felony count of neglect (she did not, however, plead guilty to battery), to serve two years in prison after a child left in her care was treated at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis for bruising to her face and a ruptured blood vessel in her eye.

The child was 5 months old at the time of the incident. Investigators accused VanAlst of slapping the little girl so hard she needed to be hospitalized, court records state.

Police and doctors at Riley said the injuries were caused intentionally, and the bruising was consistent with marks left by an adult hand.

After hearing more than three hours’ worth of testimony Monday afternoon, Hancock Circuit Court Judge Richard Culver ordered that VanAlst serve a five-year sentence, dividing her time between prison and probation.

The woman, whose address is now listed as 2140 Ritter Ave., Indianapolis, will spend two years in an Indiana Department of Correction facility, followed by three years on probation, Culver ordered.

During the latter part of her sentence, VanAlst will not be allowed to work with children and will have to pay restitution to the victim’s family to cover the cost of the child’s medical bills.

Wise told the judge she asks herself why anyone would ever let something bad happen to her bubbly little girl.

Especially someone the couple trusted, someone they considered a friend, she said.

“I failed my daughter because I trusted Terri VanAlst,” Wise said. “Terri took away my ability to trust anyone with my kids. I’ll never be able to forgive her for what happened.”

VanAlst originally was charged with one count of neglect of a dependent and one count of battery, both as Level 5 felonies.

On the morning the case was set to go to trial, prosecutors decided to drop the battery allegation to ensure the woman pleaded to the remaining count. In turn, she admitted to the neglect charge, opting to let a judge decide her sentence rather than going before a jury.

VanAlst took the stand Monday during her sentencing hearing and repeatedly denied harming the little girl. She told the judge she left the baby alone for a few minutes that afternoon in November 2015 to step outside and smoke a cigarette. She rushed back inside after hearing the child scream.

She said she took full responsibility for what happened as a result of her neglect.

“I didn’t mean for her to get hurt,” VanAlst said, wiping tears from her eyes as she spoke. “She was in my care … and I’m sorry for that. But I didn’t hurt her. I would never hurt her.”

But prosecutors still believe VanAlst caused the little girl’s injuries, Deputy Prosecutor Marie Castetter said in court Monday.

After presenting photographs of the child as evidence and questioning VanAlst about the events that led to the little girl being taken to Riley, Castetter told the judge that VanAlst slapping the child is the only reasonable explanation for what might have happened.

“She might not be convicted of battery, but there is no doubt in our mind what happened,” Castetter said.

The victim’s mother told the judge she heard VanAlst change her story about what happened to the little girl at least six times as police investigated the incident, mainly saying it was likely another child at the home that day hurt the baby.

VanAlst speculated to the child’s family and to investigators that one of the other children she was looking after might have fallen on top of the infant; or tried to pick the little girl up but dropped her; or threw a toy and hit the infant in the face, officials said.

Experts at Riley, however, told police those scenarios were unlikely, Castetter said.

Though the child made a full recovery, Castetter argued the extent of any psychological injuries will be realized only as the victim grows and asked the judge to sentence VanAlst to six years in prison — the maximum penalty allowed under Indiana law for a Level 5 felony.

VanAlst’s attorney, Bob Elsea, however, said the notion the infant would suffer long-term issues was ridiculous; he asked the judge to be lenient with his client, suggesting it would be better for her to serve her sentence on home detention.

The little girl is too young to remember what happened that day; the only reason she’d ever know about the incident is if her parents decide to bring it up one day, Elsea said.

Elsea argued it was inappropriate for prosecutors and the victim’s family to repeatedly suggest VanAlst had slapped the child even though she hadn’t been found guilty of battery.

“They believe that because it’s what they’ve been told,” Elsea said of the victim’s family, “but the state hasn’t proven that. To sentence her (more severely) just because you believe something happened isn’t why we’re here today.”

As he agreed VanAlst should serve prison time, Culver remarked that VanAlst’s criminal history – which includes theft convictions in Marion and Hancock counties – was something he couldn’t ignore.

As court bailiffs prepared to escort her from the courtroom in handcuffs, VanAlst sobbed at the defendant’s table next to her attorney, wailing about her own son and who would take care of him now.

“I didn’t do this,” she cried as her attorney tried to calm her.

Author photo
Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.