DHS wins judgment against mother but fight isn't over, attorney says

A Johnson County jury found in favor last week for the Iowa Department of Human Services in a lawsuit brought by a mother whose child was put into foster care based on a false abuse allegation made by the non-custodial father in 2009.

Jessica Coronado, formerly of Guernsey, claimed a DHS child protective worker removed her 5-year-old daughter from her custody without evidence of “imminent danger,” which is required under the law, and violated her constitutional rights by placing the child into foster care for more than two weeks in November of 2009.

According to trial testimony, Paul LaFauce, a DHS child protective worker, said he was following the agency’s protocols and consulted with his supervisor when he placed Izabella Nino in foster care.

The legal battle regarding DHS’ actions is not over. Martin Diaz, Coronado’s attorney, submitted post trial argument to 6th Judicial District Judge Ian Thornhill last Wednesday for a ruling regarding the violation of constitutional rights and other DHS practices.

Diaz said Monday there was “undisputed” evidence at trial that Izabella wasn’t in imminent danger and Coronado, who has legal custody of the child, had not given her consent to place the child in foster care. Diaz said that’s a “clear violation” of constitutional law.

Diaz said the crux of their argument is that “each parent has an independent constitutional right to care, custody and control of their child, unless the state can show the child is in imminent danger.”

"We are pleased with the verdict, " DHS spokesperson Amy McCoy said Monday. "Child welfare is one of state government's most difficult jobs. Each case is complex and involves tough decisions. The DHS and all of its partners, including the courts, work together in an effort to protect children."

According to trial testimony, any sexual or physical abuse allegation was unfounded following two exams by University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and the Children’s Protection Center in Cedar Rapids. LaFauce then asked the father, Robert Nino, to sign the agreement without informing Coronado. He claimed the father could give his consent on behalf of the child and mother by signing a "voluntary foster care placement agreement."

LaFauce testified he was concerned about the safety of the child. He initially didn’t know Robert Nino had no custodial or legal rights. He just knew Coronado, wasn’t in town.

Coronado was out of town helping her boyfriend, now husband, with his ill mother in Texas, according to testimony. Izabella remained in Iowa with her grandmother, where both she and Coronado lived, because of school. Coronado stayed in daily contact with her daughter.

LaFauce admitted in testimony that Izabella wasn't in "imminent danger," be he went ahead and asked Robert Nino to sign the voluntary placement agreement without the consent of Coronado. He then asked Nino's sister, who was designated as the foster parent for Izabella, sign a "safety plan," which parents usually sign as a condition set by DHS to keep a child safe in the home.

Diaz in the post-trial argument, also asked the court to rule on the DHS practice of using the voluntary agreements as a way to remove children from parents without going through court. Two parents are required to sign the agreements, according to testimony presented during the hearing on Wednesday. He said the safety plans also are supposed to be a tool to keep a child in the home but it's been common practice for DHS to use these in placing a child with a third party or foster care home.

Diaz said he and DHS have 45 days to submit further briefs in the case and then the judge is expected to make his ruling in a few months. Thornhill could overturn the verdict or let it stand. Diaz said he will likely appeal if it stands.