Jury acquits day care worker in pants
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Jury acquits day care worker in pants

Mar 06, 2023

SALIDA — One of two Chaffee County day care workers accused of child abuse after a 5-year-old boy pulled down his classmates’ pants was acquitted Tuesday in a case that's riled parents who said authorities overreacted.

Amy Lovato, who helped open The Schoolhouse to fill a child care shortage in Salida and Poncha Springs, stepped out of a preschool classroom to throw in a load of laundry and returned to discover that a 5-year-old boy had tried to pull down a younger classmate's pants and diaper. Lovato was accused of placing a child in a situation that posed a threat to injury and failure to report child abuse under the time allowed by law.

Lovato began to cry upon hearing the six-person jury found her not guilty of both charges. The jury listened to two days of testimony in the misdemeanor case and deliberated for less than two hours.

After the verdict, Lovato spoke to The Sun outside the judicial center.

"These charges would have devastated my career on top of how devastating and damaging this has already been to my whole life," she said.

Lovato's defense focused on the ambiguity of Colorado's "mandatory reporter" law, which requires teachers, doctors and other professionals to report suspected child abuse or neglect "immediately."

Defense attorney Jason Flores-Williams also questioned why Lovato was charged at all when the interactions between the 5-year-old boy and his classmates did not constitute child abuse under the law. If the jury had convicted Lovato, it would mean that toddler play could turn a toddler into a child abuser, Flores-Williams argued.

"You are deciding whether or not one toddler being a toddler playing with other toddlers is now child abuse," he told the jury in his closing argument, later adding, "Is that the standard you want to set?"

The child care center was abruptly shut down Jan. 24 and parents were called to pick up their children in the middle of a work day, arriving to find multiple armed Chaffee County sheriff's deputies inside the front entrance. All but two of the 14 families whose children were in that classroom later signed a letter asking law officers to drop the charges and reopen The Schoolhouse.

Lovato, her attorney said, was a mom trying to help solve the child care crisis in the mountain town and wasn't going to "run off to authorities" to report a 5-year-old's actions. Instead, she considered the incident a teachable moment, he said.

"Are you going to call the person who tried to solve the child care problem in this valley a criminal?" he challenged the jury, adding later, "I don't know what happened to adults finding solutions. … What about professional discretion?"

But Deputy District Attorney Joanne Morando said Lovato failed in not immediately reporting the incidents, which were first brought to authorities by the parent of a 3-year-old girl. The day care director, who is also charged and faces a separate trial, reported the incidents a few days after they occurred.

"This was not a witch hunt by the government," Morando said. "A parent is the one who brought the investigation."

It was neglectful and dangerous for Lovato to leave 15 children ages 3 to 5 alone, even though the children didn't suffer "bruises or broken bones," the prosecutor said. Lovato, on cross examination, said she had to leave for three to five minutes to bring a urine-soaked blanket to the laundry. The other teacher was in the bathroom.

And while the prosecutor argued that the kids were calm and not scared during the raid by sheriff's deputies the day the center was shut down, Lovato called the law enforcement action "aggressive."

"We were in shock trying to stay calm for the kids," Lovato testified. "It was aggressive how many of them were there."

Besides Lovato, the defense's only other witness was a parent whose child attended the day care and was also touched by the 5-year-old boy. The mother testified that the parents of both children shared a pizza and talked it out, agreeing that they would deal with it among themselves.

In the days after the closure, parents packed a sheriff's debriefing that included the mother of the 5-year-old boy and the mother of the 3-year-old girl he was accused of touching. The meeting with Chaffee County Sheriff John Spezze and other deputies at times turned into a shouting match.

District Attorney Linda Stanley, the same district attorney under investigation for her handling of a high-profile murder case, proceeded to trial despite the community pleas to reverse course. In March, Lovato's attorney asked a judge to drop the charges. Lovato's children attended The Schoolhouse and she was filling in as a classroom teacher that day because the center was short-staffed. Her regular job was director of the nonprofit that founded the center.

Parents argued that what occurred at the day care was age-appropriate behavior by a curious preschooler, not criminal behavior.

Prosecutors at the 11th Judicial District originally charged The Schoolhouse's director, Roberta Rodriguez, with the same two charges. They later dropped the charge of placing a child at risk but Rodriguez still faces a charge of failure to report child abuse. She is scheduled to have pre-trial readiness conference July 3 and a separate trial Aug. 7-8.

Judge Brian Green, a Park County judge who is presiding over the six-person jury trial after two other judges recused themselves from the case, did not allow the public to watch the trial virtually, as is regularly allowed in Chaffee County and across the state. During a March hearing on the case, he admonished spectators for gasping in protest when he denied a motion to dismiss the charges.

About 25 people filled the eight rows in the Chaffee County courtroom during the trial.

As Lovato stood trial at the courthouse in Salida, local county commissioners Tuesday approved a $133,000 grant that will help the child care center reopen.

The funds secured by the Chaffee County Community Foundation will go toward hiring staff to open the doors of The Schoolhouse in August, though it will operate under a new name — Ark Valley Preschool.

The state, which stripped The Schoolhouse of its license after the January raid by sheriff's deputies and Chaffee County Human Services Director Monica Haskell, has since reinstated the license.

It's unknown how many of the teachers who lost their jobs when The Schoolhouse was shut down will return to work at Ark Valley Preschool. The criminal charges against Lovato and Rodriguez had a chilling effect in the community, leading former day care workers to look for jobs in other industries, said Betsy Dittenber, executive director of the Chaffee County Community Foundation.

"The situation at The Schoolhouse was really stemming from a workforce shortage," she said, not from wrongdoing by the teachers. "The teachers have been having a rough time with this, being such a public case."

At the same time, the community has rallied in support of the child care center and the women who opened it in 2020 in a historic municipal building. A GoFundMe page for the two women who were criminally charged has raised nearly $10,000.

As "mandatory reporters," the women were required under the law to report any suspected child abuse or neglect "immediately." Instead, day care director Rodriguez reported both incidents Jan. 19 — three days after the first incident and two days after another incident involving the same boy.

Rodriguez had reported to child welfare authorities that on Jan. 16, Lovato left children alone in a classroom for a few minutes while starting a load of laundry after a child had wet themself during naptime, according to the sheriff's office incident report. When she returned, Lovato saw a 5-year-old boy "crouched over" a 3-year-old girl. The girl later told her teacher that the boy had tried to pull her pants down and touch her butt.

The following day, the same boy was in the bathroom with two other children. When a teacher opened the door, she saw that one child had her pants pulled down and that child said the boy was touching her butt.

Rodriguez held meetings with both the boy's parents and the girl's parents, and made plans to hold an educational session with all the children about appropriate touching and private body parts. Rodriguez also consulted a licensing expert at the Chaffee County Office of Early Childhood, as well as the office's mental health professional, to ask what steps she needed to take, according to the sheriff's report.

Besides the possibility of never working in the industry again, Lovato could have faced up to 120 days in jail and a $750 fine for each misdemeanor charge if she had been convicted. The Schoolhouse opened in 2020 in Poncha Springs, about 5 miles outside of Salida. Its founders set up a nonprofit called the Chaffee Childcare Initiative, with long-term goals of supporting more child care options in the Arkansas Valley, which has a shortage of day care. The Schoolhouse cared for 24 children.

David has been in journalism since high school and his first published story was in the Bethany (Okla.) Tribune-Review in September 1982.Most recently, David was the editor at The Aspen Times from 2017 to 2022, and before that spent 17 years at The Denver Post, first working in... More by David Krause

Jen is a co-founder and reporter at The Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues. Her first journalism job was at The Hungry Horse News in her home state of... More by Jennifer Brown

SALIDA Other day care parents asked law enforcement to drop the case County approves $133K for new child care center on same day Incident reported to authorities after three days