Trial starts Tuesday in mother's lawsuit against DHS

Woman claims agency violated her constitutional rights when her daughter was placed in foster care

Trish Mehaffey
Published: January 27 2014 | 4:00 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 2:42 am in
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A mother who is suing the Iowa Department of Human Services for placing her child in foster care based on a false allegation takes her case before a Johnson County jury Tuesday, arguing the policy used for removal is a violation of Iowa law and unconstitutional.

Jessica Wilbur Coronado of El Paso, Tx., formerly of Guernsey, filed the lawsuit in 2010 against Iowa Department of Human Services abuse investigator, Paul LaFauce, and director Charles Palmer, claiming LaFauce and the agency violated her constitutional rights when they placed her 5-year-old daughter Izabella in foster care based on documents signed by the child’s non-custodial father in November 2009.

The father, Robert Nino of Marshalltown, who had no custodial or visitation rights, took the girl for a weekend visit while Coronado was out of town and he filed a sexual abuse complaint against Coronado. Nino then signed a “voluntary foster care placement agreement” with DHS without Coronado’s consent and the child was put in foster care for nearly two weeks.

DHS will argue a parent signed the placement agreement and LaFauce and DHS were protecting the safety of the child within the law, according to the lawsuit.

Natalie Cronk, Coronado’s attorney at the time, told The Gazette about Izabella’s removal Nov. 18, 2009 to raise public awareness as Coronado was attempting to bring home her daughter. The sexual abuse allegation was unfounded but DHS, even after Cronk filed a petition for the child’s return, refused to return Izabella to her mother.

In a follow up article, Cronk told a reporter that after the first article ran in 2009, DHS contacted Coronado and said Izabella would be returned if she signed a “safety plan,” which had nothing to do with the original allegation. A safety plan is designed to keep a child safe in their home and provides requirements for a parent or legal guardian to follow, Cronk said.

Coronado claims in the lawsuit DHS’s practice of taking possession of children by voluntary foster care placement agreements and through safety plans, without obtaining the consent of the custodial parent, is unconstitutional.

The suit contends the voluntary foster care placement agreements used in the context of child removals or child abuse investigations is improper and not according to statute. The agreements are to be used when a parent, guardian, or custodian of a child with developmental or intellectual disabilities request placement of a child in foster family care for a more than 30 days, according to Iowa code.

Coronado is asking for the jury to award damages for pain and suffering and for attorney fees and expenses and punitive damages against Lafauce to deter this conduct in the future, Martin Diaz, Coronado’s attorney said last week.

Diaz will also submit an argument to the judge, separate from the jury trial testimony, regarding the voluntary foster care placement agreements and safety plans.

The trial is expected to last all week. Jury selection begins 9 a.m. Tuesday in Johnson County District Court. Follow updates at thegazette.com

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