A substitute bus driver for a Georgia public school district was fired after she left a kindergartner on the side of a busy highway on her own, despite what her family says was the child's apparent explanation that she was supposed to go to an after school program.
Little Julianna Pimentel was found by motorist Jane Holmes on a section of Georgia State Route 20 in Canton trying to get to her day care at about 3 p.m. on December 16, she told InsideEdition.com.
"I see this little girl running—she's running, she's walking and she's crying," Holmes, a private investigator, said. "It's one of the busiest highways in Georgia."
Holmes made a U-turn on the road to help the child, pulling alongside another vehicle that had stopped to see what was going on.
"We pulled up to her and she looked at us kind of leery," Holmes said. "I said, 'what's wrong sweetheart?' and she ran to me."
Holmes' dashboard camera captured the exchange, during which the child cried: "I lost my family because the bus took me to my house and nobody was there."
Julianna's family said was supposed to be left at a day care she but was dropped off near her family's home, located in a desolate area along the highway.
When she saw that her home's front door was locked, Julianna tried to walk to day care, which the bus had apparently driven by on its way to the house, Julianna's father, Gilberto Pimentel, told InsideEdition.com.
"I got a text from the day care stating Julianna's bus had passed and I have this gut feeling that something wrong was happening. They told me they were waiting for her outside," Pimentel said. "And what drives me crazy is the school bus driver acknowledged the lady from the day care standing outside, but she never stopped."
He said he and his wife signed a form in the beginning of the school year instructing the bus to bring their daughter to day care, not to their home as both parents work during the day.
"After she passed the day care, [the bus driver] asked, 'where do you live?' My daughter said 'we live in the little blue house,'" Pimentel said. "She found the house and stopped in front of it, but my daughter told her she needed to be dropped off at after school. The woman escorted her off the bus and took off."
Holmes brought the terrified child to the Forsyth County Sheriff's Office, where police were able to locate her parents through the school district.
"My wife calls me — devastated, crying — saying, 'they found Julianna... they found her on the side of the road,'" Pimentel said.
Though procedure may vary from district to district, Georgia State protocol dictates that bus drivers must keep children on a bus if no parents or approved persons are present to collect the child, unless written permission notes otherwise.
"If the parent is not at home, NEVER leave a child home alone without written permission from the parent. Notify the transportation office that you will continue on your route and return the child after the route," The Georgia Department of Education Pupil Transportation Division's school bus driver training manual notes. "If the second return fails, then bring the child to the transportation department so that arrangements can be made to get the child home."
The bus driver, 48-year-old Shelley McKinley, was fired Wednesday, but the termination was backdated to the day of the incident, a spokeswoman for Forsyth County Schools said.
She had worked for the district since 2013 and had no prior incidents on her record, the spokeswoman said. There are no cameras located on the district's school buses.
"Our school resource officer and principal met the parents and child at the sheriff's office when they were reunited," spokeswoman Jennifer Caracciolo said. "The principal, transportation director and superintendent have been in contact multiple times with the parents from 12/16 to this Wednesday. Our transportation director and HR director have contacted the PI that located the child multiple times."
Julianna returned to school after the holiday break, but is too afraid to get on another school bus, her father said.
"She's terrified. She says, 'mommy, I don't want to be by myself.' We have the daycare picking her up, but it's temporary. I'm looking for a permanent solution," Pimentel said, adding that he shares his daughter's fears. "The transportation system... they lost my trust. She could've been hit by a car, she could've fallen into a ditch, somebody could've picked her up saying, 'I'll take you to safety' and we may have never seen her again. I can't sleep thinking about all the bad things that could have happened."
Holmes agreed, saying she was happy to have been the one who found Julianna.
"This is how missing persons cases start," Holmes said. "In my job, I see the evil in this world; I see the heartache and the headache... and this could've been much worse."
Pimentel noted his family is considering pressing charges against McKinley.
"She was an adult and she acted completely wrong," Pimentel said. "I don't know what made her drop off my daughter without even thinking twice. I just don't understand."
The Forsyth County Sheriff's Office and McKinley did not return messages seeking comment by InsideEdition.com.