A second Chaffee County day care worker charged with child abuse after a pants-down incident in a room of preschoolers and toddlers will not go to trial.
Chaffee County prosecutors on Tuesday filed a motion to drop the charge against Roberta Rodriguez, former director of The Schoolhouse in Poncha Springs. Rodriguez had been charged with failure to report child abuse after a 5-year-old boy at the day care center was accused of pulling down a classmate’s pants and diaper while the teacher stepped out of the room to start a load of laundry.
The community, and especially The Schoolhouse families, had rallied around Rodriguez, a single mom with six children. They started a fund to pay her rent. “Mysteriously I would go to pay my utilities and it would be paid,” she said, on the verge of tears. “Or a check would end up on my door for $2,000 or $3,000.”
One family even paid for Rodriguez, 46, to take a vacation to California, where her oldest daughter is in the Navy.
The turmoil caused her heart problems and anxiety, she said, and she went on multiple job interviews but did not get hired because of the pending child abuse charge. The case’s dismissal will help her begin to heal, she said.
“I’m overwhelmed,” Rodriguez told The Colorado Sun before taking her kids out to dinner to celebrate Tuesday night. “I kept playing it over and over in my head. I knew I did everything right. I knew I took care of the kids. I knew I took care of the staff. I knew I took care of the families.”
The teacher in the classroom that January day, Amy Lovato, was acquitted of similar charges in June after a jury in Salida deliberated less than two hours. Lovato, who helped open The Schoolhouse because of a shortage of day care options in the county, was filling in for a teacher because the school was short-staffed.
Parents whose children attended the center were called to pick up their children in the middle of the day, and arrived to find armed sheriff’s deputies in the lobby. The sheriff’s office and local child welfare officials shut down the center and began interviewing parents and children about the boy’s actions.
Most parents were outraged by the closure and accused local authorities of overreacting to what they considered normal childhood curiosity. All but two of the 14 families whose children were in the classroom that day signed a letter asking authorities to drop the charges against Lovato and Rodriguez.
“It’s a relief to finally see some logic during this nightmare,” Lovato said Tuesday. “The immense amount of damage this has caused Roberta, The Schoolhouse families and myself is immeasurable.”
Lovato, a mom whose children attended The Schoolhouse, said her life was upended by the charges. If convicted, the women could have faced up to 120 days in jail and would have been barred from ever working in the child care industry again.
Eight months later, The Schoolhouse is opening under a new name, Ark Valley Preschool, and has struggled to find staff. Lovato said she still can’t understand “how this whole disaster has unraveled” and that she’s not sure if she wants to work in education, calling the charges and school closure a “breach of authority” that “sabotaged the program I created and the career I had planned.”
“The trauma and stress have had an overwhelming impact on our small community, and with other day cares and educators everywhere,” she said.
Prosecutors at the 11th Judicial District originally charged Rodriguez with two misdemeanors — failure to report child abuse in the time allowed under the law and placing a child at risk. They dropped the second charge months ago, but were scheduled to go to trial Sept. 25 on the failure to report.
District Attorney Linda Stanley asked a judge Tuesday to dismiss the charge and quash all warrants against Rodriguez “in the interest of justice.” Her office provided no other comment.
The day care workers’ defense centered on the ambiguity of Colorado’s mandatory reporter law, which requires teachers, doctors and other professionals to report suspected child abuse or neglect “immediately.”
Rodriguez reported two incidents involving the boy to child welfare officials on Jan. 19 — three days after the first incident and two days after the second.
Rodriguez had reported to child welfare authorities that on Jan. 16, Lovato left children alone in a classroom for a few minutes while starting a load of laundry after a child had wet themself during naptime, according to the sheriff’s office incident report. 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 next 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.