An amended lawsuit filed against the Arapahoe County Department of Human Services on Tuesday details alleged constitutional violations on behalf of 26 individuals who contend their families were torn apart by child-protective workers they claim fabricated evidence and provided false sworn testimony.
The lawsuit alleges that Arapahoe County workers regularly removed children from homes that posed no risks and put them in peril by placing them in unsafe environments.
While the lawsuit does not specify a specific dollar amount in damages, Elliot Singer, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs, has demanded in private negotiations with the Arapahoe County attorney a payment of $50 million and an overhaul in how Arapahoe County handles child-protective investigations.
Details of Singer’s demand were gleaned from an email The Denver Gazette reviewed.
The lawsuit contends that a county child-protective investigation resulted in the termination of one father’s parental rights without cause so that custody could be given to a mother “on active probation for driving under the influence with the daughter in the car and while the daughter was not wearing a seat belt.” The mother also lived with her father, a convicted and registered sex offender, the lawsuit states.
That case was one of dozens of child-protective cases the lawsuit contends county officials botched through false testimony and fraudulent evidence. The lawsuit details another case that resulted in the alleged placement of a child in an “abusive and injurious environment,” where the child was present during drug transactions and was not provided appropriate medical care. The lawsuit states that, in two of the cases, county child-protective workers sought “unconstitutional” gag orders from a judge that barred caretakers from protesting the removal of children.
The lawsuit said that, in another case, a mother’s parenting allegedly was called into question because the child-protective worker believed the mother used drugs but when the mother was tested for controlled substances the tests came back negative.
The county’s child-protective worker, according to the lawsuit, justified removal of the infant from the mother in that instance because the mother permitted the father to attend the birth, even though there was a court order that permitted the father to do so. The lawsuit states the infant son was placed in a foster home, where bruising and sores all over his hand, nose and head suggest he is being abused.
The amended complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Denver, seeks designation as a class-action and states the 26 individuals in the complaint do not represent the entirety of the class.
Aurora Councilwoman Danielle Jurinsky is the only plaintiff named in the complaint, with the other individuals identified in the filing as seeking to join the class only identified by their initials.
Law enforcement officials have charged Robin Niceta, a former Arapahoe County child protective worker, for lodging a false anonymous complaint in January that Jurinsky had sexually abused Jurinsky’s 2-year-old son. Jurinsky eventually was cleared of the allegations, but she still was subjected to two weeks of investigation by the child-protective system, during which a county worker interviewed her son’s day care teacher, her son’s pediatrician and Jurinsky’s parents.
Prosecutors contend that Niceta weaponized the child-protective system where she worked as retaliation for Jurinsky calling for the firing of the Aurora police chief at the time, Vanessa Wilson, who then was Niceta’s romantic partner. Niceta and Wilson have since parted ways.
While decrying the alleged criminal actions of Niceta, county officials in the past have denied that she is emblematic of systemic issues in the county’s child-protective system and have said that they believe the Jurinsky case is an anomaly.
“We also disagree with any suggestion that there is a systemic problem with our human services caseworkers committing misconduct beyond the known misconduct of this former employee,” Arapahoe County Commissioner Nancy Jackson wrote earlier this month in a guest opinion column that appeared in The Denver Gazette.
She added that the county has asked the Colorado Department of Human Services to do an outside investigation of the employee’s work. She said the ongoing investigation by the state, so far, has not found any evidence to “suggest that the former employee did anything that might have resulted in a child being wrongfully removed from a home.”
Luc Hatlestad, a spokesman for the county, said the board of county commissioners “believes the amended complaint and its many broad and unsupported allegations of misconduct on the part of staff are without merit, and that the amended complaint will eventually be dismissed in court.”
He said “many of the concerns have already been raised in state court proceedings and have either been found to be without merit or were otherwise resolved.” The state’s Child Protection Ombudsman also found “a number” of the concerns to be meritless, he added.
Niceta resigned from her job with the county in May, a day after law-enforcement investigators asked her about the anonymous hotline child abuse complaint about Jurinsky. Niceta denied to investigators that she had called the hotline, though a police affidavit for her arrest stated that investigators found Niceta’s cell phone called the hotline at the same time that the hotline complaint was made. Aurora City Manager Jim Twombly fired Wilson as chief in April, citing low morale in the Aurora Police Department.
Niceta’s lawyers did not respond to requests for comment on the amended lawsuit and the pending criminal charges.
The lawuit states that Niceta and other Arapahoe County child-protective workers similarly targeted other parents, who ended up having their children removed from their homes. Of the disputed child-protective cases detailed in the lawsuit, nine involved case work by Niceta. Two women contended in the lawsuit that, while Niceta was investigating the safety of their homes, Niceta offered them alcoholic beverages, and one of those women contends Niceta made sexual advances on her.
Named as defendants in the lawsuit were Arapahoe County Department of Human Services, that agencies division of child and adult protective services, a division manager, Niceta and the Arapahoe County Board of County Commissioners. The lawsuit alleges widespread violations of civil rights, right to equal protection and right to due process.
“Defendants have not only violated the United States Constitution and federal law, but in doing so have also, through their actions in baselessly separating or attempting to separate children from their parents or caretakers, caused unspeakable trauma to many individuals throughout Arapahoe County, including children, their parents and other caretakers alike,” the lawsuit states.
When a foster and adoptive mother under investigation declined the offer of alcohol from Niceta and questioned Niceta’s professionalism, Niceta immediately moved to remove from the home four children to whom the women was providing foster care, as well as the woman’s own children, the lawsuit alleged.
It states Niceta later falsely testified in court that she observed bruising on the children but had taken no photos because she did not have her cell phone with her at the time to take any photos. Niceta further falsely testified that the woman was not providing medical care to the children, according to the lawsuit.
That testimony from Niceta was false because she received and sent several text messages to and from the woman on the day that she claimed she did not have her cell phone, according to the lawsuit.
In addition, the lawsuit states the children had visited therapists, who documented that they were receiving adequate care, including medical care, and did not have any bruising. The lawsuit said the woman was able to produce hundreds of pages of medical records showing that she was providing medical care to the children.
Niceta also falsely testified that one of the individuals with whom one of the children was placed had no criminal background, when, in fact, that person did, according to the lawsuit. The woman claims she became so stressed that she lost her top teeth, and her hair began falling out.
Those seeking to join the class include Kristin Nichols, a former partner of Niceta, who contends Niceta falsely accused her of domestic violence as a ploy to gain the upper hand in a custody battle for Nichols’ daughter.
A separate lawsuit has been filed by a couple who contend Niceta’s false fabrication of evidence resulted in the removal of their 14-year-old daughter, who is Muslim. They contend the girl, who is deaf, was wrongfully removed due to cultural assumptions and stereotypes.
Jurinsky also is separately suing Niceta individually for libel and slander.