DHS worker had no legal right to remove 5-year-old from mother, attorney says

Trish Mehaffey
Published: January 29 2014 | 11:37 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 2:50 am in
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Jessica Coronado is suing the Iowa Department of Human services and a child protective worker because her 5-year-old daughter was removed from her custody without evidence of “imminent danger” and they continued to keep the child for more than two weeks without cause in November of 2009, her attorney said in his opening statement.

Martin Diaz, Coronado’s attorney, said Paul LaFauce, the DHS child protective worker in Johnson County, should have a court order to remove Izabella Nino from Coronado, which he didn’t during the period of Nov. 6-18, 2009 when they placed the child in foster care. LaFauce only had a “voluntary foster care placement” form signed by Nino, the non-custodial father.

Diaz said LaFauce never had any evidence of sexual of physical abuse.

Charles Phillips, LaFauce’s attorney, said in his opening statement that LaFauce was just doing his job. As a child protective worker, he had to determine if allegations or complaints against a parent or guardian are warranted. LaFauce and his supervisor will testify that their main goal is to keep the child safe. The child’s interests take priority over the parents’ rights.

Phillips told the jury there will be times when parents become angry over these kinds of investigations.

Coronado in her lawsuit claims LaFauce and the agency violated her constitutional rights when they placed Izabella in foster care based on that document signed by Robert Nino, the child’s non-custodial father.

Nino, formerly of Iowa City, who had the child for a weekend visit while Coronado was out of town,  filed a complaint indicating possible sexual abuse. 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.

The Johnson County civil trial is expected to last all week and possibly into next week. Coronado is asking for punitive damages against Lafauce to deter his conduct in the future. Diaz will also submit an argument to the judge, separate from the jury trial testimony, regarding the voluntary foster care placement agreements.

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Diaz said DHS had a complaint claiming the child was “dirty” and had blood in her underwear. Izabella was taken to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics for an exam and doctors found no evidence of physical and sexual abuse. LaFauce had a sheriff’s deputy remove her from the home, a second examination is conducted and still nothing is found but LaFauce continues with a “voluntary foster care placement agreement” signed by Nino and places Izabella with Nino’s sister.

Diaz said LaFauce never called Coronado, who had legal custody of Izabella, or her grandmother, who’s home where Coronado and Izabella lived. LaFauce didn’t talk to Coronado, who was helping her boyfriend with his ill mother in Texas, until Nov. 10. Coronado asked LaFauce to return her child, he refused. LaFauce also refuses to return Izabella when contacted Nov. 11, by Coronado’s attorney.

Natalie Cronk, Coronado’s attorney, tells LaFauce he has no legal ground to keep Izabellak, Diaz said. LaFauce refuses and then meets with aunt, where Izabella is temporarily placed, and asks her to sign a “safety plan,” which means she would supervise any of Izabella’s contact with Coronado or Nino.

Cronk then gets a legal order signed by the court to return Izabella to Coronado, Diaz said. LaFauce then says he has to do a “home check” at Coronado’s home in Guernsey. A Powershiek County DHS official goes out to check the home and finds no issues or problems.

LaFauce then tells Coronado he will return the child is she signs a “safety plan” so DHS can monitor the situation. She refuses and again Cronk demands he return the child to Coronado. Cronk then files a subpoena Nov. 18, 2009, asking DHS for its documents of this placement action and LaFauce again asks Coronado to sign safety plan.

Cronk and Coronado finally got to the aunt’s house, where Izabella is staying, and takes the child, Diaz said.

Phillips said the voluntary placement forms are regularly used by DHS and is a way to take an informal approach in situations like this. It’s not always best for the child to bring them into the court system. LaFauce had a difficult situation to try to sort out. He was dealing with two parents who weren’t together and he was trying to make sure the child was in a safe environment.

There were two complaints that had to be sorted out, Phillips said. One involving sexual abuse and then the grandmother filed a complaint against the father, who was a registered sex offender, and the mother wasn’t around.

Nino, Diaz said during his opening, was a registered sex offender. Nino had sex with Coronado when he was 18 and she was 14. Coronado became pregnant with Izabella as the result.

Phillips said LaFauce followed guidelines and consulted his supervisor. He didn’t act on his own. His conduct was reasonable and necessary.

 

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