Sheriff’s Department initial incident report reveals Schoolhouse staff reports “aligned” with statements to investigators, but there was a collective decision to criminally charge staff.
The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution states:
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.
Furthermore, although not expressly defined in The Constitution, the 1895 Supreme Court case Coffin v United States established the presumption of innocence principle commonly referred to as “Innocent Until Proven Guilty in a court of law.” This principle was mainly derived from the Fifth, Sixth, and 14th Amendments.
Unfortunately, in our modern digital world misinformation and lies can be circulated and amplified thousands of times before a kernel of truth emerges. Therefore, constitutional protections such as “Innocent until proven guilty” and the ability to confront accusers and witnesses often become impotent.
Currently, there is a powerful and damaging public narrative circulating, especially on social media, about the investigation, closure, and subsequent criminal charges filed against two staff members at the Poncha Springs Schoolhouse. The Schoolhouse closure, which occurred last Tuesday, January 24, 2023, has left more than a dozen families, (24 children) without childcare, two caregivers criminally charged, and stirred a strong public outcry from dozens of parents and citizens.
The resulting toxic public discourse is already threatening to destroy the lives and livelihoods, not just of the two women accused, but other parents who depended on the Schoolhouse early childhood program that allows both parents to work and financially support their family. Moreover, this discourse does not support a presumption of innocence and will likely cause more harm to all involved as it plays out, well before anyone gets to exercise their rights guaranteed as by the Sixth Amendment.
Similarly, the protections afforded to news media by the First Amendment are equally important in criminal cases where government agent’s actions require scrutiny. The actions of the Chaffee County Sheriff’s Department officers and the Department of Human Services (DHS) personnel in regard to the Schoolhouse closure is one such incident that requires additional scrutiny.
Ark Valley Voice obtained and examined a redacted copy of the Chaffee County Sheriff’s Department’s initial incident report. We found four areas where details and facts about the actions of Schoolhouse staff along with the actions of both Law Enforcement and Department of Human Services personnel diverge from the current public narrative.
The following is a synopsis of the relevant details and facts. Behaviors of children and Schoolhouse staff interactions with parents are purposefully nondescript and vague in order to respect the privacy of children and parents.
First, according to responding deputies, DHS Director Monica Haskell provided them with “referrals” from the Schoolhouse and requested their assistance in the investigation and closure of the Schoolhouse. During the “closure process” deputies obtained Schoolhouse records and later reviewed those records as a part of their criminal investigation. The reports included incident reports written by Schoolhouse staff and staff disciplinary actions.
Along with reviewing Schoolhouse records, investigators interviewed six current Schoolhouse staff members. According to investigators, three staff interviews with deputies (including one of the accused), “aligned” with the reports those individuals had written earlier; meaning what they described earlier was exactly the same as they described when interviewed; something that tends to occur when people are telling the truth.
Investigators did not specify if the other interviews deviated from their written reports and no other charges were filed based on intentional misrepresentation of reported information.
Second, deputies identified three incidents “referred” to them by Director Haskell. All incidents were interrelated, with two being child behavioral incidents between children and one being a staff supervision incident (as reported earlier by AVV ). The behavioral incidents occurred the previous week and the supervision incident occurred the week of the Schoolhouse closure. According to investigators’ examination of Schoolhouse records and staff interviews, all incidents were reported to DHS by Schoolhouse staff.
Deputies examined at least four reports written by Schoolhouse staff documenting the behavioral incidents. According to investigators, the reports described how Schoolhouse staff worked with parents in all incidents to help both children and parents address the behaviors. Additionally, they showed how Schoolhouse staff outlined physical changes to rooms and play areas as well as educational training in order to avoid future incidents. Schoolhouse staff statements also included consultation with outside professional resources, including a county mental health specialist, when confronted with a difficult and sensitive behavioral incident.
Third, six deputies, including Undersheriff Andy Rohrich and Investigation Commander Alex Walker and Sheriff Spezze responded to the Schoolhouse to assist DHS in its closure.
Sheriff Spezze, Undersheriff Rohrich, and Commander Walker represent almost the entirety of the Chaffee County Sheriff Office’s command structure with each officer having over 20 years of law enforcement experience. It is unclear what role the leadership played in the closure and investigation because the official incident report was written by Detective Ellison. It is also unclear if any of the leadership wrote their own reports concerning the Schoolhouse closure and investigation because there is no reference to other reports which is common practice in large and/or sensitive investigations.
Finally, after all the interviews, deputies stated, “We met with Director Haskell from DHS, and a few case workers, and Deputy District Attorney Joanne Morando. After discussing the findings in the case, it was decided that based on the delay in reporting for each of the incidents,” Amy Lovato and Roberta Rodriguez would be charged with:
CRS 19-3-304 “Persons Required to Report Child Abuse” and CRS 18-6-401 “Child Abuse”.
According to Colorado Revised Statute 19-3-304, Child Care workers and teachers are among those that are required to immediately report child abuse or evidence thereof to the appropriate county entity or law enforcement. Based on the timeline emphasized in the detective’s report and the above statement about a “delay in reporting”, it is clear that Schoolhouse staff did not comply with this law.
However, the report does not specify (or it was redacted) what constituted child abuse as described by CRS 18-6-401 “Child Abuse”. Colorado Revised Statutes defines “Child Abuse” as:
(a) A person commits child abuse if such person causes an injury to a child’s life or health, or permits a child to be unreasonably placed in a situation that poses a threat of injury to the child’s life or health, or engages in a continued pattern of conduct that results in malnourishment, lack of proper medical care, cruel punishment, mistreatment, or an accumulation of injuries that ultimately results in the death of a child or serious bodily injury to a child. Furthermore, the CRS defines a child as a person under the age of 16.
The behavioral incidents in question involved children’s actions toward other children, not a caregiver’s abuse or injury of a child. There are only three states that allow a child under the age of 14 to be charged with a crime and all of those states only charge for the most severe crimes such as capital murder. It is generally recognized that children under the age of 14 do not have the cognitive skillset to meet one of the basic principles of a crime known as mens rea Latin for “guilty mind”.
Based on the records provided to the investigators and their subsequent interviews it is hard to see where any deliberate crimes occurred. Unless, of course, there are other separate investigations involving the Schoolhouse and its staff. If there are other investigations we have not been made aware of, the same Constitutional protections would also apply.
I’m a parent of a child at the schoolhouse, thank you Stephen for presenting the facts. I would like to help point out that the ‘delay in reporting’ was directly related to the fact that schoolhouse staff were in communication with licensing agents and a mental health professional about how to properly report and proceed through a challenging situation between kids. Much of the delay was simply waiting for correspondence time. Beyond that, thank you for also focusing on the real crime here of the completely inappropriate rush to judgement and what’s quickly becoming apparent as people in positions of power ABUSING that power. The criminal charges against two of the staff members are undeserving and the damaging and extremely disruptive mishandling of the situation by DHS, specifically Monica Haskell, is unbelievable and shameful. It’s hard to imagine there wasn’t a better or less threatening way to have worked through this situation or that other licensing/educator/mental health professionals couldn’t have been the ones to join to what amounts to a DHS raid and closure of the schoolhouse. It certainly feels like there were either prior other incidents/investigations, but like you mention nothing else has ever been reported and as a parent I’ve never seen evidence of anything besides quality care, or there may have been pre-existing relationships between Monica Haskell/DHS staff and Daycare staff that could have added fuel to the inappropriate response? There are many community members that would like to hear more clarity regarding the possibility of that.
Thank you for writing this!
It seems that this could have been handled very differently. And it is scary to think how people in power tend to not understand the concept of putting themselves in other people’s shoes. Such as the children’s little shoes for starters. It’s obvious from reading parent’s statements on line they only have positive comments toward the day care manager and staff. What ever happened to “investigating” the referral? Were there not other ways to communicate with the director and staff without terrorizing children and parents? I’ve seen daycare centers be closed before. But not for anything this slight. Is there a vendetta of some sort occurring behind the scenes here?? Something to do with Poncha Springs, hmmmn. One wonders…..
Excellent explanation of the issues!
Congrats Stephen on your and what now appears, as great reporting, on this very unfortunate, and again overreaching actions of our Sheriffs Dept and possibly Mz. Haskell; If your investigation turns out to be accurate, the sheriff and Mz Haskell should be removed ! if not I stand corrected! Let’s see how the facts and law play out in this incident.