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This is Part I of a Developing Story: What was it like to have at least a half dozen sheriff’s deputies barge into a childcare center? How frightened were those children?

There appears to be a local case of law enforcement asserting their dominance in the public square, and in a school setting in a forceful way. Some might call a response from no less than six to eight Chaffee County Sheriff’s deputies to an area childcare facility excessive.

The release from the Chaffee County Sheriff reads: “On January 24, 2023 the Chaffee County Department of Human Service (DHS) and the Chaffee County Sheriff’s Office responded to the Chaffee County Child Care Initiative, Poncha Springs, after DHS received a complaint of Lack of Supervision.”

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

What the release does not say, according to a source close to the situation, is that the Chaffee Child Care Initiative (CCI) self-reported a dip in the child-to-caregiver ratio for a few minutes on a previous weekday,  after a child peed on the linens during nap time.

“The first time we heard that this happened because of the lack of supervision was in the [Chaffee Sheriff’s] press release which came out later,” confirmed our source close to the facility.

A staffer at The Schoolhouse has confirmed the details of the circumstances of the self-report last Thursday, January 19. One of the caregivers cleaned up the child who had had the ‘accident’, and took the linens to the laundry.

Upon returning, the caregivers assigned to the room wrote up a report because for the three to five minutes it took to get the soiled linens to the laundry room they dropped below the caregiver-child ratio.

The Chaffee County Department of Human Services (DHS) received the childcare facilities’ self-report, and sources tell Ark Valley Voice (AVV) that they received no follow-up contact prior to the arrival of DHS Director Monica Haskell with armed law enforcement at The Schoolhouse.

One wonders if the childcare center had not removed the soiled linens and cleaned up the child, would they have been accused of neglect or running an unsanitary childcare facility?

The Sheriff’s release says: “Upon arriving at the Child Care Facility investigators from DHS made contact with the staff and advised them of the situation. Parents were contacted at that time to make arrangements for them to pick up their kids in attendance.”

Our CCI source says that other than their own self-report, CCI doesn’t know what else DHS is investigating them for, and weren’t informed that DHS and law enforcement were coming; they just showed up. Sending six to eight uniformed officers at once to a childcare center in this day and age, and separating children from their childcare providers could really frighten three or four-year-old kiddos.

“I can confirm that the way they showed up was a surprise. We anticipated there would be some following up on our self-report. But the manner in which they showed up … the poor children were frightened, and the most terrified were the parents, who were told only that ‘The Schoolhouse is being closed and come get your kids’,” said our confidential source. “There were six to eight officers standing in our small foyer. The officers wouldn’t let the staff call the parents to pick up the children.”

Who notified the parents and how? “We don’t know if it was DHS or the officers, but there were at least a couple of incidents of divorced or separated parents where the wrong parent was called — setting off alarm bells for working parents.”

The officers had the caregivers compiling documents, while a few were allowed to stay with some of the children. The staff was asked for everything from attendance records, to contact lists. They were also asked for children’s personal files (which would seem to be confidential) and staff files.

The Schoolhouse has been shut down, “pending the outcome of the investigation”. This surely does make it sound as if the childcare facility was caught red-handed, rather than the truth; which is that they were the ones who filed the self-report related to the few minutes of shortfall of their child-caregiver ratio in a room during naptime.

“I am so distressed for the families and our children,” said our source. “I heard yesterday, we might hear something next week. We have received a lot of support from our parents. They have been very understanding. Our staff is having a hard time — this is rough on them. It was not easy to watch our parents and kids go through this. We do respect law enforcement but this was a bit of an overreaction.

Wednesday evening, January 25, 2023, this statement was issued on behalf of Chaffee Childcare Initiative & The Schoolhouse

 Last week, The Schoolhouse, a childcare center operated by Chaffee Childcare Initiative (CCI), became aware of a three-to-five-minute time period in one of our classrooms, during which the teacher-to-child ratio was not met, as required by Colorado Childcare Rules & Regulations. At no time were the children without adult supervision.

CCI promptly self-reported the situation to DHS and the Colorado Office of Early Childhood – Division of Early Care and Learning Licensing, in accordance with mandatory reporting requirements. On Tuesday, January 24, the Chaffee County Sheriff’s Office directed The Schoolhouse to close our center pending an investigation into a complaint of Lack of Supervision.

CCI as well as The Schoolhouse management and staff have always been, and will continue to be, ardently dedicated to the well-being, enrichment, and safety of all the children in our care, a responsibility we take very seriously. We appreciate the quick response from DHS and the Chaffee County Sheriff’s Office, and we look forward to a swift resolution to this situation. We are eager to welcome our community’s children and our staff back to The Schoolhouse in the near future.

The Colorado Licensing Authority was informed of the investigation and will make a final decision on the facility’s license status. One would hope that they, at least, would actually read the self-report.

In the meantime, the reputation of CCI is questioned, children were frightened, and working parents desperately in need of childcare are scrambling. Many have already lost work time after being called to retrieve children.

“What are those parents going to do?” said a parent whose child had previously attended the daycare, affectionately known as “The Schoolhouse. “They need that childcare to be able to work.”

Perhaps the larger question is: what would be an appropriate proportionate response from our public servants — both DHS and law enforcement?

Editor’s Notes: According to our AVV sources, CCI was told not to say anything to the public, and employees were told they couldn’t talk to anyone about this. There is nothing legally binding that says that the Chaffee County Child Care Initiative board can’t put out their own statement (which they did Wednesday evening as published above). There is no reason that employees can’t talk about how this incident or the law enforcement response impacted them and the families they serve.

DHS Director Monica Haskell and Chaffee County Sheriff were contacted by AVV for comment. In a brief exchange late afternoon in the hallway of the Tauber Building following a meeting with the childcare center parents, Haskell confirmed that her comment was “no comment”, although she also confirmed that the department response is the same whether for a self-reported incident, or one reported by others for any incident involving child welfare. The Chaffee County Sheriff has not yet responded.