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Chaffee County Judicial Facility
A man sits outside the Chaffee County Judicial Facility in Salida on June 6, 2023. (David Krause, The Colorado Sun)

A second Chaffee County child care worker is headed to a jury trial despite the swift acquittal of a coworker accused in the child abuse case stemming from a 5-year-old boy pulling down classmates’ pants.

Prosecutors attempted during a pretrial hearing Tuesday to add new allegations to their case against Roberta Rodriguez, who was director of The Schoolhouse in Poncha Springs until it was raided by sheriff’s deputies and abruptly shut down in January. 

Judge Brian Green denied the request and asked prosecutor Karen Lintott whether she was trying to “throw the spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks.” 

Rodriguez, who is accused of failure to report child abuse in the time required under the law, is scheduled for a Sept. 25 jury trial. In June, a jury deliberated less than two hours before acquitting Amy Lovato on charges of placing a child in a situation that posed a threat of injury and failure to report. 

Lovato, who helped open The Schoolhouse to fill a child care shortage in Salida and Poncha Springs, left a preschool classroom to throw in a load of laundry and returned to discover that a 5-year-old boy had tried to pull down a younger classmate’s pants and diaper. 

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. 

As “mandatory reporters,” the women were required by 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 the other incident involving the same boy. 

Prosecutors wanted to add four prior incidents that happened in the child care center to their case against Rodriguez, including that children playing in a tunnel pulled down their pants and showed each other their private parts. 

Multiple teachers were aware that the 5-year-old boy was involved in the behavior going back to the fall, as was Rodriguez, the prosecutor said. The child care center director should have taken action sooner and gotten outside help, Lintott said. 

“It’s the lack of supervision and the lack of reporting, which would have given rise to additional resources to come in and help,” she said. “You can look at the conduct and think, ‘OK, it’s kids on kids.’ But if it keeps going on … then that constitutes abuse or neglect.” 

But the judge was not convinced. Green questioned why the prior incidents had bearing on the case when none of them were criminal acts or rose to the level of requiring a child abuse report. He instead referred to the prior pants-pulling-down issues as “children were being children.” 

“Children pulling their pants down does not constitute child abuse,” said Green, a Park County judge who is presiding over the case because two local judges recused themselves. “There’s no allegation that the children were not being properly supervised or that there was any type of coercion in any of these prior instances. None of those prior instances, in my opinion, would even be problematic and require reporting. But you’re using those as reasons to inflame the jury.”

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

The misdemeanor charge against Rodriguez carries a punishment of up to 120 days in jail and she could never again work in child care if convicted.

The Schoolhouse opened in 2020 in Poncha Springs, about 5 miles from 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. The Schoolhouse cared for 24 children.

Chaffee County commissioners awarded a $133,000 grant this summer so the center can reopen under a new name, Ark Valley Preschool. The center is in the process of trying to hire child care workers.

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...