As the Weeks Go By, The Schoolhouse Parents Say DHS Has Taken “a wrecking ball” to their lives.
While local government and Chaffee County residents may have moved on from the news in late January of the abrupt (and many say reckless) closure of the Chaffee Childcare Initiative’s Early Childhood Center known as The Schoolhouse, there are many who cannot move on because they remain in crisis.
That childcare is everyone’s issue, should be apparent by now. If it isn’t, a review of the presentation to the Chaffee Board of County Commissioners this past Monday serves as a reminder.
Many parents of the 24 children who attended The Schoolhouse are, if anything, more furious about the events of January 24 now, than in the first weeks after the day when the Chaffee Department of Human Services (DHS) and the Chaffee County Sheriff’s Office showed up in force and shut the school down.
On January 26, two of their beloved teacher/directors were charged with two misdemeanor charges each after self-reporting two incidents of being out of the childcare-child ratio in a classroom for a few minutes, and another of a five-year-old child doing a pants-pulling-down behavior for which they had consulted with a pediatric behavioral health specialist at the Chaffee Early Childhood Council.
“I think my anger at DHS has only grown,” said one mother who asked to remain anonymous. “They have taken a wrecking ball to our lives and not cared enough to even return our calls.”
“I’m a victim of DHS and the Sheriff’s Department not of The Schoolhouse,” said one admittedly furious parent who still can’t find childcare. “Our child is watching a lot of TV and isn’t having any socialization. Our house is very stressed. They say they are doing their best, but tension is high … so many families are emotionally stressed and financially stressed from this.”
“When I showed up to The Schoolhouse and saw all the cop cars I thought something was terribly wrong,” said one father. “Something really serious. Then I had to walk through the front lobby area through six or seven cops and was furious when I found out what had happened.”
The day after armed law enforcement shut down their childcare center, parents were summoned on an hour’s notice to interviews, in which several parents have told Ark Valley Voice they gave positive reports of their experience and said that they could see no reason why The Schoolhouse wasn’t completely capable. To a person, these parents told AVV they trusted the Chaffee Childcare Initiative program and The Schoolhouse with their children and had been communicated with appropriately regarding the self-reported incidents.
Even parents whose children have graduated from The Schoolhouse program into kindergarten have reached out to AVV to support The Schoolhouse. One parent whose son attended the Schoolhouse all of 2022 but left in 2023 due to promotion to kindergarten, said not only had they never had a negative experience with the staff, but they also got regular updates on his performance. “When he left they gave him a card and gift. It was so special, but kind of sad too because he had so much fun there.”
Other parents weren’t as critical of DHS, but all expressed their mystification over DHS actions that closed a place they loved. “Our son loved the center and his teacher. We’re family,” explained one. “His teacher really knew him.”
Late afternoon on January 26, again on only an hour and a half’s notice (a seriously inconsiderate situation given these were parents who had just lost their childcare and were already juggling its impact on their work) they were called to another mandatory “meeting by the Sheriff’s Office and DHS. During that meeting many say they felt they were being forced to fill out child abuse report forms, didn’t get straight answers to questions, and DHS Director Monica Haskell admitted to parents that “this has been handled badly.”
When she couldn’t make that mandatory meeting because she and her husband were juggling their work hours so one of them was always with their child, another mom said “I told them I work in normal hours — and I can’t meet a demand to be somewhere by 3:00 p.m. They actually said I could not be debriefed if I was not able to be at the meeting. I told them I could do it at 5:00 p.m. DHS said no, the sheriff could come to your home. Then I never got a follow-up call. When I called the sheriff’s office, they just laughed and said ‘who told you that?’ and I said DHS and they laughed and said no one is coming to your home.”
The mother said she took to the sheriff’s office’s Facebook page and finally got someone who would actually call her back; it was Sheriff John Spezze, who at least checked in a few times with her, but had no answers for her childcare crisis.
Some Schoolhouse parents have banded together to create small childcare circles, and a few small groups have set up a nanny system. But not everyone can afford that, and that doesn’t mean these are enrichment programs. Many of the parents feel left adrift. Many complained that calls to DHS have gone unanswered, call after call.
“We aren’t getting more details,” said another parent. “That combined with the fact that DHS has offered ZERO help. They said our names were entered in a lottery — a lottery — that the childcare centers filled out the paperwork to take more kids. Well apparently zero* daycare centers have filled out the paperwork, so there are no resources. Second, they don’t follow up with parents.”
This mother of a child under the age of two told AVV that “I found a licensed childcare in Salida, that said ‘I’m willing to take your child if the waiver applies to under 2 years old’. But then I never got a call back. Nothing happened.”
“No one has called us about a placement for my kids,” said one mother who described herself as desperate. “They were completely unresponsive to other parents too. [When it happened] I got three calls to come and get my kid’s things, then one from the victim’s advocate…. letting me know I’d be asked questions. That’s it!”
“They say: any resources needed, just call us — which is the biggest load of sh**t,” she added “They don’t even call us back …”
A few questioned why the entire center was shut down when even the law enforcement incident report only involved two directors and there were only two self-reported incidents.
“I feel that DHS and the sheriff’s department acted quickly, and irrationally and then they had to double down on what they had done,” said one parent. They say they were acting in the best interest of kids and families and that is absolutely rubbish. If they were doing their best for parents, then there were other teachers there [in the program] who were certified as directors who could continue the center. It feels very punitive. And we parents have heard other childcare centers expressing their fear that the same thing would happen to them…. so they don’t want to take the kids.”
Some of the parents mentioned a press message put out by the county within the first few weeks of the closure that they don’t think rings true. “This was a narrative from DHS that makes it sound like they are doing all this work to get them credentialed again and they aren’t,” said one parent. “We think the things they chose to put in that report, the way they chose to structure it is designed to promote their narrative that it warranted six armed police officers. The bathroom is in the classroom, for crying out loud.”
Other parents have had to make some major career sacrifices and see no solution in sight.
“My perspective hasn’t changed. If anything it has strengthened and I am absolutely furious,” said the parent of a 13-month-old who was in the infant/toddler program. She said she and her husband were so impressed with The Schoolhouse program that they had signed up early, and paid to hold the slot for their baby before they even needed it.
“As far as childcare, I had zero options that I could find until one week ago. In the meantime, a woman who was our daycare worker before we moved here a year ago – moved in with us to help for a few weeks. It’s terrifying,” she continued. “The one licensed daycare worker in BV I found said ‘I feel for you. If you can verify the waiver — I can take him but I’m not going to be as good as the Schoolhouse was’. Really — that’s my option? It’s terrible.”
Some are having to make horrible decisions. At least one parent quit her job to stay home with her child. Another mother cut back on her full-time professional benefited position as a dietitian. Because she went from full-time to less than 30 hours per week, now she has lost her benefits, including healthcare for herself and her son.
“It is so frustrating, we did everything right. We planned ahead, we made a financial sacrifice, and now we’re making another one — now I have to go with whoever will take my children,” said one professional mom. “Now the question – will he be safe? — haunts me.”
While some point out that the Chaffee Early Childhood Council could step in, Director Sarah Romack has told AVV that they have reached out to childcare providers, but can’t make existing childcare providers take more children. They also don’t have any of the contact information for The Schoolhouse parents; the contacts are to be done by DHS. Romack said they did not have advance warning that The Schoolhouse was being shut down.
“We’re the ones affected and DHS has zeroed in on this idea of what they did was in the name of family wellbeing and children’s safety and they have neglected the real reason – now our children don’t have safe childcare,” concluded one parent.
Another parent said bluntly, “the one time the DHS person (Monica Haskell) did call me back – she told us they had zero resources and said ‘I’m trying to be creative. One creative solution I’m investigating is if foster families here can take in your child.’ I said that’s absurd. You’re going to put our children into homes with children many of whom have been exposed to this kind of abuse you say you’re removing our children from? It feels like we’re in a comedy show.”
This would not seem to be the way a county operates that wants to keep its young families. This is — and will continue to be — a developing story.
*According to Romack, one family daycare in the county has filed paperwork to take on a few more children and the Montessori School in Buena Vista has also opened up a few slots.