The little girl won't remember what may or may not have happened to her at day care when she was a year old.

But the child's mother won't ever forget that a man told authorities he had fondled her daughter.

"I'm a wreck," she said. "I'm way more damaged than she is."

The mother said police told her Feb. 5 that her daughter, who turns 2 in April, was one of the eight children Mark Mays said he had fondled or sexually assaulted when he worked at two different day care centers in Omaha over the past few years.

Mays, 24, has been charged with one count of first-degree sexual assault of a child. That charge stems from a Jan. 12 allegation involving a 2-year-old girl. In a Feb. 4 interview with a detective, Mays said he had placed that girl naked on his lap and digitally penetrated her while working at Little Hands at Work and Play day care at 1714 N. 120th St. Asked about other incidents, Mays named other children and the day cares they attended.

Authorities are continuing their investigation into what Mays told them. Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine has said he anticipates filing additional charges involving other places that Mays has worked, including La Petite Academy, 10707 Birch St.

The mother, who spoke to The World-Herald on the condition that her name not be used, said she doesn't know the specifics of what her then-infant daughter may have suffered. And her daughter is too young to be able to tell anyone.

"I don't even know if she knows it happened," the mother said. "There is that, thankfully."

The woman had started taking her daughter to La Petite Academy in early 2014, when the child was 12 weeks old. That was a little more than a year before Mays was hired. The mother said she was leery of Mays when she met him, but she thought she was overreacting because he was a man and because she herself was molested as a child. He didn't introduce himself, which struck her as odd, and she didn't have a good feeling about him.

So she decided to speak up.

"I told them I didn't want him to change her diaper," the mother said. "They agreed."

The family moved recently, and the mother took her children out of La Petite. A detective called her Feb. 5 to tell her what Mays had told police.

It's difficult for parents to recognize whether a child has been abused if the child is too young to understand what has happened or describe what happened.

Parents can watch for clothes that aren't put on correctly, and they may notice that the child has developed a new fear of people, said Russ Reno, a spokesman for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

Other red flags include bruising in the thigh or genital area; thumb-sucking; bed-wetting; and, if the child is talking, new words for private body parts, said Ivy Svoboda of Project Harmony, an Omaha nonprofit that serves abused children.

"Parents really need to trust your instincts — that's the No. 1 thing," said Janet Herzog, program director for the Midwest Childcare Association. "They need to ask questions, find out who is working at the center, how long they have been working there. They need to be able to walk in at any time unannounced if they want to and can do some background checks themselves."

The state requires all day care centers to perform background checks on every potential employee. Those checks include a local law enforcement report and checks of the state's child abuse registry, adult abuse registry and sex-offender registry.

Mays passed all the background checks required by the state before he started working at Little Hands, said Sara Martin, a spokeswoman for the company.

In a statement, La Petite Academy said its workers also performed the required background checks on Mays before hiring him.

"We were deeply disturbed to learn of the statements made by former employee Mark Mays to the authorities," the statement said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the families involved. We are fully cooperating with the authorities in all aspects of the investigation. ...

"Like other assistant teachers, Mr. Mays worked alongside more experienced teachers in a classroom."

The Little Hands location where Mays worked was disciplined in 2007 for leaving two children unsupervised, said Leah Bucco-White, an HHS spokeswoman. One of the children, described in a state report as a child 4 to 5 years of age, was forgotten in the back of a van for a short time after a field trip on a summer day when the heat index was roughly 85 degrees. The side windows of the van were open, according to the state records, and the child was sleeping.

The state put the day care's license on probation for six months and ordered staff to review its transportation and field-trip policies, and "either update or create new written policies to address specific procedures."

The state has no disciplinary actions on file for La Petite Academy, Bucco-White said.

The mother interviewed by The World-Herald said she had no idea anything had happened involving Mays until police contacted her.

"It's even worse that we didn't find out right away," she said. Since she was told, the woman and her husband have pulled their kids out of their current day care and taken some time off work. The couple has decided to hire a nanny.

Still, the mother doesn't know if she will be able to trust anyone with her children ever again.

She has begun taking anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medication and said she is planning to see a therapist.

"As a working mother, you feel a lot of guilt anyway," she said. "But then something like this happens. It's terrible."

Contact the writer: 402-444-3100, maggie.obrien@owh.com

To report suspected child abuse to Project Harmony:

In Nebraska: 1-800-652-1999 In Iowa: 1-800-362-2178

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