Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Chaffee Childcare Initiative Executive Director Amy Lovato was found innocent of all charges against her in the January 2023 brouhaha regarding The Schoolhouse. Photo by Jan Wondra

Amy Lovato Found Innocent of Child Abuse and Failure to Report Charges in The Schoolhouse Case

The six-member jury returned from an approximately 90-minute deliberation in District 11 Court on Tuesday afternoon and returned two ‘not guilty’ verdicts in favor of former Chaffee Childcare Initiative Executive Director Amy Lovato. Many in the courtroom wept for joy, including Lovato and her family, and applause broke out for what some described as long-awaited vindication for a beloved teacher in the community.

Outside the courthouse and with her tears dried, Lovato was asked what her most overwhelming feeling was right now, she replied, “Relief. That is my biggest feeling right now. This has been so stressful. I’ve had those charges attached to my name in front of this town for months now. Now I can walk around town and hold my head up.”

“This has been a nightmare since that day,” she added. “This has been so perplexing. I live here. I created something for the community that a lot of people wanted. The sad thing is there is still a childcare crisis and one a little heavier than before. Our crisis is affordable housing and childcare. I’m very pleased that my side of the story was able to come out and a jury of my peers decided I am innocent.”

Referencing the support she has had, Lovato added, “People have been very good about letting me know they have my back — I’ve never felt so loved. Even friends from high school I haven’t talked to in 20 years ago have reached out.”

The two-day trial on June 5 and 6 had several tense moments, as Deputy District Attorney Joanne Morando pressed the case of the state’s administrative procedures, the duties of mandatory reporters of child abuse and neglect, and Lovato’s culpability.

The jury disagreed.

“There are actually no winners here. We got not-guilty verdicts, but I’m not jumping up and down for joy because I don’t like thinking about the way this kid was treated, and don’t like thinking about the way his family had to get out of town,” said her attorney Jason Flores-Williams. “During closing argument, I talked about it. The jury did a hell-of-a job, they are to be commended. But this whole case is just sad. These people lost a good school, the parents were scrambling and scared — and it scared the hell out of a lot of people. At the end of the day, I’m glad the jury saw through everything and said ‘enough’.”

“Sometimes prosecutors have to realize that when they bring charges, even without guilty verdicts it can have really negative impacts,” he added. “I’m not blaming anybody. I don’t want anybody to feel bad, but this is just a loss. Now for my client, she can go forward and have a career now.”

Lovato was charged with second-degree misdemeanors in the uproar over incidents at The Schoolhouse in Poncha Springs, which was closed indefinitely on January 24. It was ultimately allowed to reopen (and it was later learned that if law enforcement hadn’t been involved, it wouldn’t have had to close), but by then it was too late; the Chaffee Childcare Initiative was out of funds, the teachers were gone, the board dismantled and the charges hung over the program.

The week of January 16-20, 2023,  the school self-reported a five-year-old touching another, younger child, and an incident of a few minutes when the Schoolhouse fell below the children-to-caregiver ratio in the classroom, while attending to laundry from a naptime mat-wetting incident where the child needed to be cleaned up and the little boy had wet his “blankie”.

Morando pressed the case that the behavior constituting the child abuse had been the act of leaving the classroom to wash the child’s nap linens, leaving the room under the state-mandated 10 to 1 caregiver ratio. She described the harm that had occurred to a little girl known as KS when a little boy (identified as CB) had pulled down the diaper of the child and “touched her butt”.

The prosecution called four witnesses, including Department of Human Services (DHS) Director Monika Haskell, who said that Monday, January 16, wouldn’t have been necessary to report because it was a first single incident and there was no pattern of child abuse. She reiterated the reporting requirements but appeared not to be able to pick out any reporting requirements related to toddler-on-toddler activity.

The preschool room’s lead teacher Julie Coarno was called, who said that after the first incident and a second one the next day, they were being vigilant about the little boy’s behavior. She explained that KS had told her something about the little boy’s behavior, but didn’t seem upset. She described the morning of January 24, when DHS and armed Sheriff’s Officers showed up at the door of the school and shut it down.

Morando put the parent of KS on the stand, Michelle Seligman, who it was noted had made a complaint to DHS. She startled many in the courtroom with a defensive attitude from the stand. She said that after Monday, January 16, she asked for reports from the teachers. “Our daughter never returned to the schoolhouse and I reported to DHS – we went back on Wednesday and then on Thursday morning and got the last two reports, and signed an incident report on Thursday morning, and the little boy’s dad was coming out as we were coming in — and it’s not safe … then we reported to DHS.”

“I’m the director of the Salida Pregnancy Resource Center and in that position, I am required to be a mandatory reporter,” she added. “You reported this to DHS at 9:00 a.m. Thursday. I made my report as a parent. I didn’t demand that he be expelled but as a resident of Colorado, as a mother, she has not returned and she will not go to any other daycare.”

Flores-Williams had reminded the jury that not only were the charges not proven beyond a reasonable doubt, but that common sense should prevail. “Can you tell me with any certainty that not only are these elements fulfilled, but that a crime took place here at all? Or do we have a woman who sought to make change – who makes the community better and starts up a school because the community needs childcare, helping a community and when something you heard from them is age-appropriate behavior of toddlers – instead — running off to the authorities, is that what we want now?”

“She tried to teach… using your common sense and what you know about this world …. can you tell me whether or not a four-year-old being curious, because they don’t know and it’s not sexual –that this isn’t happening in preschools across the country right now? Now they want you to say that’s criminal now?”

On the stand, Lovato covered the dream she had to start a childcare center to serve the community that could be bilingual, celebrate the arts, and become a centering community for families. She walked the courtroom through a normal routine of activities, learning sessions, outside play, snacks and lunchtime, naptime and end-of-day routines.

One of the many facts that came out was that during naptime that ratio changes – making each child a .5 kiddo — meaning that the classroom with lead teacher Julie Coarno cleaning up the child in the classroom bathroom was within the ratio.

“If I didn’t witness the behavior it’s difficult to report it,” said Lovato from the stand, who had explained that from the classroom doorway she was less than 10 feet from the children. When she stepped back into the room she went to pick up a little girl (KS) who the charts said needed her diaper changed, and saw a surprised look on the face of the little boy next to her, but that was all.

As Flores-Williams pointed out, Lovato was not present for the three additional incidents by CB that followed that week, while the center’s director Roberta Rodriquez was reaching out to the state and the local child psychologist about how to report a toddler’s behavior because it isn’t even covered in the state’s mandatory reporting standards.

The case was already muddied by another startling statement on the witness stand by Department of Human Services Director Monika Haskell, who had said that the Monday, January 16, it wouldn’t have been necessary to report that first single incident, which was the only day Lovato was in the classroom.

On the witness stand, Lovato pointed out, “We are not obligated to report dips in ratio. We can talk to our licensing agent about it if we want to.”

Detective Tyler Ellison described the call for law enforcement to assist DHS in their January 24 visit to the school, and his body camera recording was played. During cross-examination he agreed with the defense attorney that “toddlers doing toddler stuff is not child abuse, right? So by what you admitted, no child abuse was reasonably expected because none occurred.” He added that they got the assist call around 9:00 a.m. and accompanied DHS shortly after 11:00 a.m. that day, so it was DHS that made the decision to go in.

“I didn’t report the Monday incident because a single incident isn’t required to be reported,” confirmed Lovato while on the stand. She said that while she was working from home on January 24, she was called, went to The Schoolhouse, and upon arrival saw many more armed police officers than had originally arrived with DHS.

She added that the center had been “hyper-vigilant since that Monday, January 16 incident. The staff had written new lesson plans on respecting personal space, the room had been rearranged and they had even cut the bathroom door in half so there was always a view into the bathroom. After the Friday incidents, they had asked for CB to remain home for a few days.

The defense called another parent to the stand, Sarah Brown, whose two little ones attended The Schoolhouse, and whose daughter MB had been the subject of one of the incidents on Friday, January 20. She pointed out that she had been one of the parents who had asked that their child not be included in the police report, did not consider that her child had been sexually abused, and objected to the use of explicit sexual language about her going into the public record and was surprised when they were included on the DA’s complaint documents.

Brown said that on the day the incident occurred, “We were told by a staff member and given a written report. We asked if it was normal behavior and they said yes. We asked if our child was upset, and she was not. She was in good spirits. I didn’t see our child in any distress. We went and had pizza with that family as planned and she was playing with CB that evening. The kids played — we ate pizza at their house. We did discuss what had happened. We decided as two families to work it out. The kids are best friends. She misses him. She misses the school, and her teachers.”

Brown shared with Ark Valley Voice that while waiting to testify, she had experienced an incident of harassment in the courthouse hall areas, where, she said, Seligman approached her and three times directed sexually explicit swear words at her for testifying. She added that “This was the same parent who stood up and screamed at me in the meeting with the sheriff and DHS after they shut The Schoolhouse down with no explanation to us.”

In March, after two District 11 Judges had recused themselves due to connections to the case, Judge Brian Green of the Park County court was assigned to preside and he denied the request to dismiss the case. The second case, that of the Schoolhouse Director Roberta Rodriquez is now a single charge of failure to report, and that trial date has not been set.