ROCK FALLS – Today, Alayna Brandt is just like any other 5-year-old girl. She dances hip-hop, ballet, and tap. She loves to ride her horse. She goes to preschool.
"She's very much a girly-girl," her mother says with a laugh.
But for a period of time, her future wasn't quite as secure.
The Brandts were introduced to Karyn McCallister and her unlicensed Sterling daycare business through a friend. They first enrolled their autistic son, Maison, and then their infant daughter, Alayna.
On Feb. 24, 2009, about 3:45 p.m., Ann Brandt got a phone call.
"I was at work, and Karyn called the salon," Ann says. "Since it was practically 5 years ago, the exact wording is hard to recall, but I remember her saying Alayna's eyes were rolling back in her head, and she was afraid she was going to stop breathing."
When Ann got to Karyn's, she took Alayna from her arms.
"Karyn was holding her head up, and she gave her to me, and I grabbed her around the trunk because she was almost 5 months old, she was holding her head up, but it just completely flopped backward," Ann says. "There was no head control."
She left for CGH Medical Center immediately, unsure of what it meant. Their 3-year-old son, Maison, she decided, would remain in Karyn's care until his grandmother could pick him up 10 minutes later.
In the car, Alayna's crying was like nothing Ann had ever heard.
"I was just in shock," she says.
That was a Tuesday. The Friday before, the last time Alayna had been in Karyn's care, Ann remembered that her daughter had been strapped into her carseat, and that there was vomit all over her.
For the rest of the weekend, Alayna was tired, anti-social, and would let only Ann or her husband, Jake, carry her.
"Very much unlike herself," Ann says
And then Tuesday rolled around, and her condition had, apparently, improved.
When Ann dropped her off at Karyn's, she even remarked about the improvement to her. She had, at the time, attributed the bout of illness to something she might have gotten from her brother, who had just recently been sick.
When Ann arrived at CGH later on that Tuesday, suspecting a neurological problem, the doctors had Alayna transferred to OSF St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria.
The doctors there discovered that Alayna had three subdural hematomas. One was fresh; the two others were older.
Over the course of the next 6 days, the Brandts waited while Alayna went through surgeries, MRIs, and CT scans.
The freshest bleed, prosecutors say – and Karyn McCallister reportedly confessed to – was caused when McCallister shook Alayna on the 24th.
"Looking back knowing, because there were three different bleeds, that was probably the second one," Ann says, referring to the vomiting incident from the Friday before. "I don't know that because they can't pinpoint it, but with the vomiting and the fact that she was very, very tired, it would make sense."
But at the time, the doctors weren't telling them anything – not until, Ann says, Karyn confessed while Alayna was in surgery on Thursday.
"They thought that we did it," she says. "They thought it was us."
"We were under investigation, basically," Jake says. " There were lots of doctors who came in and asked us questions, police. ...
"I just figured it was some kind of protocol because she was an infant," Jake says.
But even then, the Brandts didn't suspect Karyn.
And then that Friday morning, Ann says, police showed up to tell them that Karyn had confessed.
In December 2009, McCallister was arrested and charged with aggravated battery of a child and reckless conduct.
The case has dragged through the court system for more than 4 years, and at this point, the Brandts are just looking for closure.
Karyn is next scheduled to appear in Whiteside County court on Monday. Both Ann and Jake will be there.
Long promised the matter would go to jury trial, Ann and Jake worry that, come Monday – nearly 5 years after Alayna's surgery – that no longer will be an option.