Judges denies Iowa DHS stay in changing policies

Calls department's arguments 'puzzling'

The Iowa Department of Human Services was denied a stay this week regarding a judge’s ruling that ordered officials to immediately stop its use of “safety plans” and “voluntary foster care placement agreements” to remove children from parents.

Sixth Judicial District Judge Ian Thornhill ruled earlier this month that it’s unconstitutional for DHS to use the plans and agreements signed by only one parent because they interfere with custodial rights of the other parent and to use the agreements signed by a non-custodial parent or a parent who hasn’t established any custodial rights, according to the Johnson County ruling.

DHS argued a stay in the injunctive relief is necessary because it will “require the department to change policies on a state-wide basis, which will entail notification and training for hundreds of employees,” according to the ruling.

Thornhill said the department’s argument was “puzzling” because during a civil trial there was testimony from Wendy Rickman, a DHS administrator, who said that policy was changed in 2012 and now both parents had to sign the agreements.

Rickman testified the change in policy came about because of the belief, by DHS, that “there was a fundamental constitutional right that each (parent) had to the relationship with the child.”

“The court declines defendant’s invitation to stay a ruling that enjoins behavior that the DHS itself acknowledged interferes with the fundamental constitutional right each parent has to his or her child,” Thornhill said in Tuesday’s ruling. “To do so would be tantamount to giving the DHS free reign to violate the constitutional rights of Iowa’s children and their parents during the months or even years that this matter is in appeal.”

Thornhill also denied DHS a hearing on its request for stay, calling it unnecessary.

The ruling stems from a civil lawsuit filed against DHS by a mother, Jessica Coronado, formerly of Guernsey, who claimed officials 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 2009.

A Johnson County jury in January found in favor of DHS but Coronado agrued equitable issues in post-trial arguments and asked the court to rule on the DHS practices, which were used to remove Coronado’s child.

Coronado’s child Izabella was removed from her home in 2009 while Coronado was in Texas helping her boyfriend, now husband, take care of his ill mother. Robert Nino, Izabella’s father, who didn’t have custody of her, made a sexual abuse allegation, which was unfounded, but DHS allowed Nino to sign the voluntary agreement without Coronado’s consent or even contacting her about the removal.

According to trial testimony, Paul LaFauce, the DHS child protective worker also named in the lawsuit, said he was following the agency’s protocols and consulted with his supervisor when he placed Izabella in foster care. LaFauce also placed Izabella into foster care with Nino’s sister and allowed her to sign the safety plan without Coronado’s knowledge.