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The midday message told parents to pick up their toddlers immediately — the child care center was abruptly closing, without explanation.

When parents pulled into the parking lot of The Schoolhouse in Poncha Springs on Jan. 24, they panicked at the sight of multiple law enforcement cars and six armed deputies in the foyer of the day care. Some feared it was a shooting. When they realized their children were safe, they wondered if they had been molested. 

Neither the sheriff’s deputies or Chaffee County child welfare authorities who joined them in the raid of the child care center were providing information.

Parents would find out two days later — after a group debriefing by the sheriff’s office — that a 5-year-old boy had been caught trying to pull down his classmates’ pants and that kids had said he touched their butts. Two day care directors who spent a few days trying to figure out how to handle the situation and then reported the incidents were charged with crimes — failure to report child abuse in the time allowed under the law and placing a child in a situation that posed a threat of injury. 

It’s been a month since The Schoolhouse was shut down and the drama reverberates beyond the loss of 24 child care spots in a child care desert. 

The parents of the boy accused of touching other classmates are moving out of state, convinced their lives as they knew them in the Salida community are ruined beyond repair. A sheriff’s office incident report that is circulating the small town reads like the boy is a sexual predator, though most Schoolhouse parents believe his sexual curiosity was developmentally normal. 

The report is redacted, but everyone with any connection to the child care center knows who he is. 

Two moms quit their jobs to care for their children at home. Two other moms cut their work hours to part time. The rest have scrambled to find care, one inviting a friend from another town to move into their home. 

And parents are fuming at the way the sheriff’s office and child welfare department handled it all. All but two of the 14 families whose kids were in the center’s “Cactus” classroom with the boy signed a letter asking authorities to drop the charges and reopen The Schoolhouse. The sheriff, in response, said he was acting quickly to protect children. 

“This thing has blown up really big,” said Sarah Romack, director of the Chaffee County Early Childhood Council, which works with the state office that licenses child care centers and distributes grants. “It’s all over Facebook. I feel like I couldn’t go anywhere without anyone mentioning it. This has really made life difficult for many, many people in the community in addition to creating a significant drop in our available child care slots. 

“It just feels like nothing is left untouched.” 

“These are toddlers. Not child molesters.”

The Schoolhouse grew out of community concern that young parents weren’t able to continue their careers because of the severe shortage of child care in Chaffee County. 

After the closure of a local child care center in 2018, a group of determined and successful working moms began meeting in a basement to brainstorm. One worked for a nonprofit and knew how to access the grants needed to get a child care center started. Another had a background in early childhood education. 

“The whole reason The Schoolhouse exists is because this group of people was willing to respond to this crisis and try something new,” said Katie Patti, whose two daughters, ages 3 and 1, attended the center.

It was like, ‘You don’t know what you are talking about, cops.’ These are toddlers. They are not child molesters.

— Katie Patti, parent of two daughters who attended the center

The Schoolhouse opened in 2020, moving into a historic municipal building that was used as a museum in Poncha Springs, about 5 miles outside of Salida. The women set up a nonprofit called the Chaffee Childcare Initiative, with long-term goals of supporting more child care options in the Arkansas Valley. The nonprofit’s first endeavor, The Schoolhouse, received a $100,000 Buell Foundation grant to renovate the old city building, and the town of Poncha Springs agreed to rent it for just $300 per month. One of the women from the basement meetings, Amy Lovato, stepped up to run the nonprofit. 

Now, she’s charged with two misdemeanor child abuse crimes. 

“I think it’s really sad that all that work could potentially just go down the drain,” said Romack, with the early childhood council. “And other child care centers in our community are watching this and going, ‘Oh gosh, could this happen to our center and what would we do and could we recover?’” 

The Schoolhouse, which served kids 1 to 5 years old, recently received a grant to add 20 spots for the state’s universal preschool program. After The Schoolhouse closure, Chaffee County is down to 11 licensed child care centers, and only four of which are community-based providers and not in-home day cares or preschools attached to an elementary school. None of the community child care centers take infants.

Patti searched for a year for child care after moving a couple of years ago to Salida, where she worked remotely for a marketing firm and her husband worked at Oveja Negra, a local company that makes packs for bikes. 

Her daughters loved The Schoolhouse, and Patti loved the “attentive and caring” staff. She believes Sheriff John Spezze and Department of Human Services Director Monica Haskell overreacted to what was normal behavior by a little boy and rushed to file criminal charges against child care employees who were doing their best to figure out whether they needed to report what was going on and to which authorities. 

“If they had a little bit more education as to what is normal, I think this thing could have been handled differently,” Patti said. 

A day after rushing to pick up their children at The Schoolhouse, families were brought in for interviews with child welfare caseworkers. A day after that, they were asked to attend a debriefing by the sheriff’s office, which at times devolved into a shouting, swearing match as parents questioned whether the sheriff’s office had overreached.

In her family’s interview with child welfare authorities, a caseworker asked Patti’s 3-year-old, “Have you ever been touched in a way you don’t want at school?” The girl was terrified and shy, and nodded her head in response to almost every question, though Patti believes nothing bad happened to her at the day care. 

Patti, along with many other parents, was also furious about the sheriff’s debriefing, in which the mother of the accused 5-year-old boy and the mother of a 3-year-old girl who believed her daughter was inappropriately touched sat in the same room. The mother of the girl ended up yelling and crying and storming out while the mother of the boy sat quietly. 

Megan Strauss, with her daughter, Cadence, Katie Patti and Brittany Buchholz are among the parents who say local authorities overreacted when they raided The Schoolhouse child care center and charged two workers with child abuse last month. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“Then there was this awful moment where one of the deputies in the back of the room said that if this had been adults it would have been sexual assault,” Patti said. “Are you (expletive) kidding me? They are 2-, 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds. I’ve been assaulted. This is not that.” 

While parents were heading into the meeting, the sheriff’s office sent out a news release announcing that Lovato, the nonprofit director, and Roberta Rodriguez, child care center director, had been criminally charged. The women were served with their charges that day. Lovato’s husband was sitting in the meeting, since their children attended The Schoolhouse. 

“It was hellish, totally hellish,” Patti said of the meeting, an audio recording of which was provided to The Sun. 

Patti thought it was inappropriate that the sheriff said he would not have wanted his kids at The Schoolhouse in light of the allegations against the 5-year-old boy. The reaction in the room was harsh, Patti recalled. 

“It was like, ‘You don’t know what you are talking about, cops.’ These are toddlers. They are not child molesters.”

Teachers report multiple incidents

Chaffee County’s human services director told the sheriff’s office on Jan. 24 that The Schoolhouse would have to shut down because of recent incidents. Director Haskell asked deputies to go with her to the center, where they collected parent contact information, confiscated files and called parents to tell them to pick up their kids.

Rodriguez, director of The Schoolhouse, had reported to child welfare authorities that on Jan. 16, Lovato, the executive director of the nonprofit that runs The Schoolhouse, left children alone in a classroom for three to five minutes while starting a load of laundry after a child had wet herself during naptime, according to the sheriff’s office incident report. Lovato was filling in as a classroom teacher because they were short-staffed.

When she returned, Lovato saw a 5-year-old boy “crouched over” a 3-year-old girl. The girl later told her teacher that the boy had tried to pull her pants down and touch her butt. 

The following day, the same boy was in the bathroom with two other children. When a teacher opened the door, she saw that one child had her pants pulled down and that child said the boy was touching her butt. 

 I’m not an expert, but I’m a 10-out-of-10 mother and if I’m not sure, how can I expect them to differentiate every single type of situation? That little boy was not a molester

— Brittany Buchholz, whose son attended The Schoolhouse

Rodriguez held meetings with both the boy’s parents and the girl’s parents, and made plans to hold an educational session with all the children about appropriate touching and private body parts. The Schoolhouse also rearranged furniture to have a clearer view of children at all times and planned to cut the bathroom door in half so teachers could always see inside. 

Rodriguez also consulted a licensing expert at the Chaffee County Office of Early Childhood, as well as the office’s mental health professional, to ask what steps she needed to take. She later reported to the state licensing office that the center had violated regulations for a few minutes when children were left unsupervised. To county child welfare authorities, she reported the incidents of the boy touching other children.

As a “mandatory reporter,” Rodriquez was required under the law to report any suspected child abuse or neglect “immediately,” generally considered within 24 hours. Instead, she reported both incidents on Jan. 19 — three days after the first incident and two days after the other. 

The mother of the 3-year-old girl contacted child welfare authorities the same day as Rodriguez, according to the sheriff’s report. The mother was so upset that she pulled her daughter out of the school and quit her job to take care of her. She said her daughter told her the boy touched her bottom while her pants and diaper were off, though the teacher who returned to the room said the girl was fully clothed. 

In a third incident described in the sheriff’s report, Rodriguez reported Jan. 23, a Monday, that on Jan. 20, the previous Friday, the same boy had put his hands on the crotch of another girl who was sitting on the floor with her legs spread wide, playing with blocks. Later that afternoon, the boy pulled down a girl’s pants and was caught by a teacher. 

Rodriguez had asked child welfare authorities if the boy was allowed to keep coming to school, according to the incident report. She also met with the boy’s family again, who told her that they had ordered multiple books about appropriate touching and had many conversations with their son. 

Rodriguez and Lovato declined to comment for this story, based on the advice of their attorneys. 

But a spokeswoman for The Schoolhouse said authorities’ reaction “was out of perspective given the facts of the situation.”

“These types of behavioral incidents — similar to biting, hitting, or other injuries and accidents — are considered age appropriate and are common in child care environments,” Liz Ryan Sax said in an email. The women’s attorneys filed motions this week asking Chaffee County to dismiss the charges. 

The nature of the incidents illustrates that it’s sometimes hard to pinpoint what constitutes child abuse. Mandatory reporters are trained to call the child abuse hotline if a child is bruised or says they were hit by a parent. They are also taught to try to decipher whether an incident is a one-off or a pattern of behavior that needs to be addressed. In this case, Rodriguez reported to child welfare officials, Sax said, “as the behavior continued and began to present a pattern.” 

The front of a courthouse.
Chaffee County Courthouse in Salida on Feb. 17. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Sheriff initiates third-party review of his office, DHS

Spezze, the sheriff, and Haskell, head of Chaffee County human services, did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. 

In a news release, the sheriff said “every child’s safety is always our number one priority” and that the office decided to charge the two child care directors after interviews with Schoolhouse staff and families. Authorities did not say whether they were still investigating the incidents of alleged inappropriate touching. 

In a follow-up news release Feb. 9, the sheriff revealed that he had initiated an independent, third-party review of the agencies’ response to The Schoolhouse investigation. The Department of Human Services and the sheriff’s office are “voluntarily initiating” the evaluation to help identify “areas of improvement within their response protocols,” the sheriff’s office said. 

“While steps like conducting investigations and issuing victims’ rights are statutorily mandated in situations like this, we also see that it can be a confusing and upsetting process in the community,” Spezze said. Parents told The Sun they were asked to sign victims’ rights statements at the sheriff’s debriefing, not realizing until later that their children were then considered victims in a criminal case. 

The front of an older building.
Touber Building City Hall and Health and Human Services in Salida on Feb. 17. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The sheriff’s office has no authority over child care licenses, which are under the purview of the Colorado Department of Early Childhood. But the criminal charges filed against the two center directors are what led the state agency to suspend The Schoolhouse’s license. The department suspended the license Jan. 25, the day after the raid. The state letter informing The Schoolhouse its license was suspended also says the center had incomplete files regarding health information for children and had failed to stay up to date on emergency and disaster preparedness training.

The action is rare, but in 2022, nine child care centers had their licenses suspended, according to the state agency. 

It’s likely to take months for The Schoolhouse to reopen, if it ever does. The center can ask for an expedited hearing before an administrative law judge, which would take three months. The Attorney General’s Office would make the request to schedule the hearing. 

Colorado child care centers cannot employ a person convicted of child abuse. Besides the possibility of never working in the industry again, the two women face up to 120 days in jail and a $750 for each misdemeanor charge. 

The state Department of Early Childhood would not comment on how Chaffee County officials handled their investigation. 

“Law enforcement has the authority to make contact in order to investigate any possible crime,” spokeswoman Hope Shuler said. “CDEC does not advise law enforcement on its internal policies and procedures.”

“They’ve ruined this community” 

Brittany Buchholz, whose 1-year-old son attended The Schoolhouse, questions why authorities jumped so quickly to close the center and criminally charge its directors when the parents and teachers still aren’t sure the allegations rose to the level of child abuse. 

“They were taking steps to reach out for help,” said Buchholz, a dietician who had to drop to part-time work when The Schoolhouse closed. “I understand the need to keep children safe and it’s really hard to make that call for what is developmentally appropriate. I’m not an expert, but I’m a 10-out-of-10 mother and if I’m not sure, how can I expect them to differentiate every single type of situation? That little boy was not a molester.” 

Buchholz has left messages with everyone from the sheriff to Gov. Jared Polis asking them to reconsider the criminal charges and license suspension. Her harshest words are for the local child welfare authorities, who have suggested to parents that they seek in-home child care options by posting on social media.

“They’ve ruined this community,” she said. “They will not even call us back.” 

Buchholz’ son, Lennox, had only attended The Schoolhouse for a few weeks, but she would bring him back to the staff there “in a heartbeat,” she said. She recalled a day when she arrived early, unannounced, and found Lennox peacefully asleep on Rodriguez’s chest. The woman passed the boy to his mother so gently that he didn’t wake up. 

“Thank you for loving my child when I’m not around,” Buchholz remembers whispering to her.

Megan Strauss, whose 3-year-old attended The Schoolhouse, was among the moms who helped it open. She’s in shock that Lovato, who stepped up as a “reluctant leader,” is now experiencing “one of the worst things that’s ever happened to her.” 

“This nonprofit that was created out of love to create child care solutions for our families is most likely just going to go away,” Strauss said. 

Strauss is grateful that it was her husband, Greg Baxter, who left work to pick up their daughter the day The Schoolhouse was shut down. She would have lost it, she said. 

This nonprofit that was created out of love to create child care solutions for our families is most likely just going to go away.

— Megan Strauss, whose child attended the center

Baxter was so upset by the sheriff’s cars filling up the parking lot, the armed deputies inside the door, and the lack of information that he complained in a seething letter to Chaffee County commissioners. 

“I immediately went down the rabbit hole in my head and thought if there’s this many sheriffs here it must be something big like an active shooter or bomb threat type situation,” he wrote. “Something really dangerous. So I rushed up to the door and rang the doorbell.”

Baxter said he was “stonewalled” when he asked for information and described the rush of relief when he reached his preschooler. “I heard some children laughing and playing and my daughter came around the corner like she always does and gave me a big hug,” he wrote. “I had to hold it together to not cry I was so happy to see her safe.”

He called it “without a doubt, one of, if not the most terrifying situation” he’d ever experienced with his children.

“That was the most inappropriate rush to judgment and show of power I’ve ever seen and to bring a military-type response with a force of armed officers into a toddler day care facility, for that?” he wrote. “This is how we’re using police time and public resources? To harass families and day care staff that want nothing more than what is best for our kids?”

CORRECTION: This story was updated Feb. 23, 2023, at 10:23 a.m. time to correct photo captions that misidentified parents Megan Strauss and Katie Patti.

Jennifer Brown writes about mental health, the child welfare system, the disability community and homelessness for The Colorado Sun. As a former Montana 4-H kid, she also loves writing about agriculture and ranching. Brown previously...