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The Schoolhouse, a child care center in Poncha Springs, pictured Feb. 17, 2023, was abruptly shut down Jan. 24, leaving parents scrambling to find alternative care for their children. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Two Chaffee County day care workers accused of child abuse because a 5-year-old boy pulled down his classmates’ pants are scheduled for a June jury trial after a judge refused Thursday to dismiss the charges against them. 

“This is the perfect case for the jury to hear,” said Judge Brian Green, a Park County judge who is presiding over the case after two other judges recused themselves. 

The case has fractured the Salida-Poncha Springs community, with most parents whose children attended The Schoolhouse supporting the beloved child care workers. In the courtroom, the judge twice asked people to stop showing their emotions by heavily sighing, gasping and making faces during his rulings.

Green would not dismiss either of the two misdemeanor counts against Roberta Rodriguez and Amy Lovato, who are each charged with placing a child in a situation that posed a threat of injury and failure to report child abuse under the time allowed by law.

“You all have your own opinions as to whether or not charges should have been brought, whether charges should be prosecuted, but this hearing today is based on the law,” the judge told courtroom attendees. “It does not reflect any opinion whatsoever regarding the case and the possible outcome of the case. Please keep your personal thoughts to yourselves. I understand the great importance to the community but I don’t want to be sidelined or distracted by public thoughts on the case.”

Attorneys for the women argued there was not enough evidence to support the charges and that the law requiring child care workers to report suspected abuse “immediately” is vague. It took about three days for the child care center to report that, while children were left unsupervised for a few minutes, the 5-year-old boy might have pulled another child’s pants down. 

“The charges criminalize preschool behavior by turning a 5-year-old into a deviant and a 3-year-old into a victim for acts that are neither sexual, abusive, criminal, negligent or against any reasonable person or community standard,” argued Jason Flores-Williams, Lovato’s attorney. “Let this fact not be obscured: We are here because one preschooler pulled down another preschooler’s pants.”

But prosecutors argued that the women failed to supervise the children even though they should have been concerned about the boy’s behavior. Rodriguez is the child care center director and Lovato is the director of the nonprofit that founded the center.

Still, prosecutors said that the boy’s actions were not criminal, which seemed to contradict statements made by Chaffee County sheriff’s deputies during a community meeting after The Schoolhouse was abruptly shut down Jan 24. “I agree that one toddler pulling down another one’s pants is not criminal conduct,”the prosecutor said. 

The reasons for the charges against the two child care workers were so convoluted that the judge ordered Chaffee County prosecutors to produce a “bill of particulars,” matching the charges with specific actions. Green said he wanted the document in two weeks so they could “find out what the theory of the case is.” The case is set for a June 4 jury trial. 

As “mandatory reporters,” the women were required under the law to report any suspected child abuse or neglect “immediately.” Instead, Rodriguez reported both incidents Jan. 19 — three days after the first incident and two days after another incident involving the same boy. 

The women’s attorneys said they had responded in a timely manner, first by talking to the parents of the children involved. Also, they argued, no child was at risk of injury, as alleged in the child abuse charges. 

“A reasonable person does not think that a 5-year old pulling a 3-year-old’s pants down violates the statute,” Flores-Williams argued in his motion to dismiss. “It may be cause for a talk with the child, which Ms. Lovato did. A talk with the parents, which Ms. Lovato did.”

Rodriguez had reported to child welfare authorities that on Jan. 16, Lovato left children alone in a classroom for three to five minutes while starting a load of laundry after a child had wet themself 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. 

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. 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, according to the sheriff’s report.

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.

The closure of the child care center occurred abruptly in the middle of a work day. 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 Monica 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.

Parents previously told The Sun that they were panicked after receiving phone calls that the center would have to close and then arriving to find multiple patrol cars in the parking lot and six armed officers in the lobby. 

The closure left parents in the small community scrambling to find other child care in the midst of a child care shortage. It’s unknown if and when The Schoolhouse will ever reopen. 

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 fine for each misdemeanor charge. The Schoolhouse opened in 2020 in Poncha Springs, about 5 miles outside of Salida. Its founders set up a nonprofit called the Chaffee Childcare Initiative, with long-term goals of supporting more child care options in the Arkansas Valley, which has a shortage of child care options. The Schoolhouse cared for 24 children.

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Jen is a co-founder and reporter at The Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues. Her first journalism job was at The Hungry Horse News in her home state of...