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Part of a Developing Story: Chaffee County Working Parents Cope With the Manner in Which The Schoolhouse was Closed and Struggle to Find Childcare

It’s been more than two weeks, and most working parents of The Schoolhouse children have yet to find childcare.

When the Chaffee Department of Human Services (DHS) and the Chaffee Sheriff’s Office shut down the Chaffee Childcare Initiative (CCI) program at The Schoolhouse in Poncha Springs on January 24, many of these working parents of some 24 children in The Schoolhouse program were at first terrified – thinking there must be an active shooter to warrant such a show of law enforcement, then furious. Their anger, they say, goes back to the way in which they have received information and the situation in which they have been placed. Some are becoming desperate because no childcare solutions have presented themselves.

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

Just two days after the closure, on January 26, parents were called to a meeting in the Touber Building by Chaffee DHS, the Chaffee County Sheriff’s Office, and a victim’s advocate. While Ark Valley Voice (AVV) was denied entry, an audio recording of the meeting was shared by one of the Schoolhouse parents. The meeting revealed:

  • After multiple requests from parents for clarification on what occurred at The Schoolhouse to warrant it being closed, DHS appears to have confirmed no one was molested.
  • The victims’ advocate said that in this case, the “abuse” was actually the fact that the classroom was “out of ratio”, and therefore abuse “could” have occurred. Being a teacher short and out of ratio falls under the definition of abuse but is actually much more benign.  (But this is not the Colorado State Statute definition of child abuse).
  • A parent in attendance claimed their child was molested, but multiple other parents told DHS and authorities that the claim was not substantiated. The parent making the claim then left the meeting.
  • During the meeting, Chaffee DHS alleged that the center had not filed an incident report until three months after the incident. [Ark Valley Voice does not know to what incident DHS is referring. The self-reported teacher-child ratio incident took place on Jan. 16, a little more than three weeks ago. The school notified parents the same day as the incident and the report was filed within four days.]
  • During the same meeting, the Sheriff then said the report had been filed six days after the incident. But the Chaffee Childcare Initiative has proof they filed an incident report four days after the student-to-child ratio was not met. 
  • While the Sheriff’s Office and DHS claimed CCI had not properly informed parents after an incident took place, the majority of parents in the room voiced their disagreement with that allegation and asserted they were told what happened, the day it happened. According to the parents, The Schoolhouse gave them details and also provided information on how to file complaints if they chose to do so. 
  • During the January 26 meeting, victims’ rights forms were handed out by the Sheriff’s Office. The parents said that they were upset that they were told to fill out victim forms. Many parents objected, saying they didn’t feel their kids are victims, and several said they felt that they were being coerced into completing the forms.
  • Parents reported that multiple times during the meeting Chaffee DHS Director Monica Haskell said she felt that the police force response was inappropriate. (What she was expecting given that Chaffee DHS instigated the investigation, she did not say.)

The meeting was already tense, and grew more so when Sheriff Spezze called CCI’s first public statement on Jan. 25 in response to the Sheriff’s Jan. 24 press release “a lie” because CCI did not self-report. A deputy then admitted that CCI did self-report the incident in question. 

Parents vehemently disagreed with the Sheriff’s Office’s claim that all parents had been notified before the department put out a Jan. 24 press release announcing that they, and DHS, had shut down the childcare facility. Parents said they first saw a Sheriff’s Office Facebook post and were not called to collect their children until about an hour after the release was posted. A few parents reported that during the meeting, the Sheriff was seen and heard calling the District Attorney’s Office and was heard telling them to prepare for a lot of upset people.

A few days after the meeting, a press release put out by Chaffee County Deputy of Administration Beth Helmke characterized the Chaffee County Department of Human Services as a “helpful and facilitating role in evaluating alternative options for childcare within other local childcare providers.”

It went on to say that “Colorado Department of Early Childhood (CDEC) is able to grant temporary expansions to increase the number of spaces a center is permitted to fill, which will increase childcare seats available in the community if these facilities are able and willing to accept additional children.”

It remains to be seen if a “temporary expansions to increase the number of spaces a center is permitted to fill” exceeds the caregiver-to-child ratios which The Schoolhouse is accused of violating for a three to five-minute period.

The idea that DHS can “connect families impacted by The Schoolhouse closure with these childcare options as they are identified,” may be wishful thinking. Area childcare facilities were already at maximum capacity. While the CDEC is able to grant temporary expansions to increase the number of spaces a center is permitted to fill, which will increase childcare seats available in the community — these facilities have to be able and willing to accept additional children. Most are not.

In fact, AVV sources say many of these local childcare facilities are afraid that the same kind of reporting violations that The Schoolhouse fell at odds with, could follow them as well.

For the record: the nonprofit Chaffee Childcare Initiative (CCI) is out of funds, and laid off the entire Schoolhouse staff on Sunday. Childcare experts say it could take six to nine months to get the Schoolhouse relicensed AFTER the legal charges its directors face, are resolved.

Editor’s note: The Chaffee County Sheriff’s Office was contacted regarding this article and has not yet issued a comment. If and when they do, Ark Valley Voice will publish it.