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In the Interest of Justice — Finally

Eleventh Judicial District Attorney Linda Stanley made it official on Tuesday, officially moving to “quash all warrants regarding the charges” against former Executive Director of The Schoolhouse Roberta Rodriquez. The DA’s Motion to Dismiss charges gave one terse sentence as the reason for moving to dismiss: “In the Interest of Justice.”

The 11th Judicial District Attorney has dropped all criminal charges against former Executive Director of The Schoolhouse, Roberta Rodriquez. Courtesy image.

“I have been crying since last night and still feel like it’s a dream,” said Rodriquez. “My lawyer sent me the docket paper and said, ‘You’re cleared of the charges.’ I had to ask what he meant.” She took a deep breath and added, “I am so happy. I want people to know that I am cleared. I am innocent!  I want everybody to know!”

Rodriquez’s case had been set to go to trial on September 25. The move to dismiss ends a terrible chapter of misplaced justice, which destroyed the nonprofit Chaffee Childcare Initiative (CCI), and impugned the honor of both Rodriquez and the CCI Executive Director Amy Lovato, who was cleared of all charges against her in court this past June.

Talking with Rodriquez after Lovato’s trial, she teared up, saying her means of making a living to support her own children, at a job she had trained for and loved, had been taken from her. “I don’t know what I’m going to do, I loved my career, it’s always been all about children.”

The DA’s decision to file a motion to dismiss is even more interesting given that the DA’s office has repeatedly called Rodriquez’ attorney, attempting to get him to take a plea deal. Rodriquez said that not only did he refuse, he told her that he “eventually just stopped answering the phone. You did nothing wrong.”

Rodriquez said she was told by her attorney that in his legal career, he had only had four or five cases just dismissed that way.

In a saga that began last January, Rodriquez had been charged with failure to timely report child abuse for an incident in a classroom of The Schoolhouse Childcare Center. The school had self-reported an incident where a little boy in the preschool had allegedly pulled down a diaper and touched another child.

In what could be called a classic case of overreaction by the Chaffee County Department of Human Services and the Chaffee County Sheriff’s Office, they showed up in force at The Schoolhouse in Poncha Springs while children were present, and shut down the childcare center. The move displaced 24 children, leaving them without childcare in the community, and panicking parents who were called and told to come get their children because The Schoolhouse was being shut down, but not told why.

One parent said when he showed up at The Schoolhouse to see at least half a dozen police cars and sheriff’s deputies at the entrance, he thought it was a school shooting or a hostage situation. Parent after parent shared with Ark Valley Voice their shock, anger, and panic, made worse by the complete disregard for the trauma it had caused their families.

The historic Poncha Springs Schoolhouse was reopened in 2020 as the Chaffee Childcare Initiative Schoolhouse. Photo by Jan Wondra.

Not only was Rodriquez not in the classroom when the action was alleged, but as center director, she also sought to clarify appropriate developmental behavior for a preschooler, contacting a child psychologist and the Chaffee Early Childhood Council before filing her report. According to child development standards, a child that young can’t be cognitively aware of nor be charged with behavior that constitutes child abuse.

Rodriquez said that with the criminal charges dropped, there is still — unbelievably — a civil charge pending. “About two days after Amy’s [Lovato] case was over,  the DA’s office filed a civil case against me — and put all the child abuse charges in it, against me.”

“The DA’s office filed it with the Department of Social Services through the ‘Trails’* system, where you don’t even get a chance to go to court or fight it — it just goes into your background check and to the state attorney general’s (AG’s) office,” said Rodriquez. “My lawyer and I contested it, but it could still take another year to get heard. Now that the criminal case is dropped, he’s submitting it to the AG’s office and we hope that it will be reviewed. This criminal dismissal helps, but right now I’m still blocked from working with children.”

Asked how she has tried to move ahead and make a living, Rodriquez took a deep breath and said that coming to terms with not being able to teach children was gut-wrenching.

“My heart is with the kids, but I have not been allowed to work around children. Last month I learned that I could become an early childhood coach until I can be back in a classroom with children — I can coach the staff and directors, meeting virtually and in person, but not when kids are around. It’s not the same, but I’m just happy to feel like I’m still part of the field.”

Asked about her emotions over the dismissal of the criminal charges, her voice took on a hopeful tone.

“Today I went and got coffee for the first time in public — and I cried. I could finally be in public and not be afraid anymore,” she said, choking up again.”Just to go get coffee and not be afraid of being there and running into that lady with the restraining order against me that would make me have to leave.”

“I can tell you this, we have been in fear for months. It’s put fear into my kids. I’ve had to explain to them that if we’re in the store and that woman comes in, I say ‘drop what you’re holding and let’s go’, we have to go because of that restraining order. Now finally if they come up to us we don’t have to leave.”

Rodriques is blunt about the impacts on her family.”It was strenuous for my kids. I’ve developed a heart problem and PTSD. The doctors tell me there’s nothing I can do until this is over and we’re not living in a constant state of stress.”

She is also overflowing with gratitude for so much community support. “It’s been my faith in this community that has gotten me through this; the messages, the financial support, the kids leaving me video messages. I was so scared that I would never work with kids again. I didn’t go out in the community. I still have panic attacks around the police. One came up behind me while I was driving and flashed his lights. He just wanted to go by me — but I had a panic attack. I pulled over and bawled.”

“I want to continue doing what I love and make a difference in kid’s lives. I finally feel like there’s a little bit of hope,” she concluded.

* The Colorado Trails User Group (CTUG) is a subcommittee of the Child Welfare Sub-PAC. CTUG is an ongoing group comprised of county Trails users and state Division of Child Welfare and Office of Information Technology (OIT) representatives that focuses on the enhancement and optimization of Trails, Colorado’s Statewide Automatic Child Welfare Information System.