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Day care workers gave melatonin gummies to 2-year-olds before naptime, cops say

CHICAGO — Three employees of a suburban Chicago day care center were charged with endangering the life or health of a child after allegedly giving 2-year-olds melatonin gummies to calm them before nap time, police said.

Management of the center, Kiddie Junction on East Oakton Street, alerted police after learning that a teacher had been giving the children gummies that contained the sleep-inducing chemical, Des Plaines Police Cmdr. Christopher Mierzwa said.

The children’s parents had not given permission for their kids to receive melatonin, he said.

As police investigated, they learned that two other teachers were also involved, Mierzwa said. After the employees were taken into custody, they said they didn’t think there was anything wrong with giving the kids melatonin because it’s an over-the-counter supplement, he said.

“You can’t distribute that without the parents being told,” Mierzwa said. “(The teachers) didn’t know if the child was allergic to melatonin.”

Police contacted the parents of every child in the day care center, he said. None said their children had been sickened by the supplement, he said, though a few reported that their kids recently seemed groggy at pickup.

After police consulted with the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, the teachers — Kristen Lauletta, 32, of Niles; Jessica Heyse, 19, of Des Plaines; and Ashley Helfenbein, 25, of Chicago — were each charged with two counts of endangering the life or health of a child and two counts of battery, Mierzwa said.

They are due to appear in court April 4.

Smita Patel, a neurologist with NorthShore University HealthSystem Neurological Institute, said melatonin is a hormone produced by the body. Supplements are meant to help people fall asleep at a desired time.

She said while it’s a bad idea to provide it to children without a parent’s consent, melatonin generally isn’t considered to be a harmful substance. The worst side effect, for some people, is nightmares.

But Dr. Anna Ivanenko, a neurologist and pediatric sleep specialist at AMITA Health, said many other countries treat melatonin as a prescription drug.

Some studies have shown that over-the-counter supplements contain unreliable amounts of the chemical, she said, as well as inactive ingredients that can cause their own side effects.

Doctors in her specialty are adamant that melatonin should not be consumed outside of a physician’s care, she said. Giving it to children without informing their parents, she said, is “a very inappropriate and potentially dangerous act.”

Managers of Kiddie Junction did not return calls for comment. Mierzwa said the day care’s operators have cooperated with the investigation.

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services also is investigating. A spokeswoman said the day care has no prior violations.

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