An Aurora City Council member who was accused of child abuse is suing the former caseworker who filed the unfounded complaint and is encouraging others who might have been wronged by the Arapahoe County Department of Human Services to join her class-action lawsuit.
Danielle Jurinksy, the Aurora councilwoman, on Wednesday sued the county’s human services department and several of its employees, including a former caseworker, Robin Niceta, who faces criminal charges in connection with the child abuse report filed against Jurinsky.
The lawsuit says more than 40 people have been wronged by the agency and will join the case.
Jurinsky, who also sued Niceta individually on Wednesday for libel and slander, has said the child abuse complaint was filed in retaliation after she appeared on a political talk-radio show and criticized Niceta’s then-partner, Vanessa Wilson, the former Aurora police chief. Jurinksy called the then-chief “trash.”
Wilson was fired as police chief in April and Niceta faces criminal charges in connection with the child abuse report against Jurinsky.
On Thursday, Jurinsky, her lawyers and about a dozen other people held a news conference to lambast Niceta and to portray her as emblematic of broader corruption within Arapahoe County’s human services department.
“What happened to me is not an isolated incident at all and I will go as far as to say that I believe at this point there’s an equitable evil that is plaguing Arapahoe County DHS,” Jurinsky said.
In addition to Jurinsky’s two lawsuits in Arapahoe County District Court, another family filed a federal lawsuit on Aug. 14 that named the department and five other employees, including Niceta, in a complaint involving a 14-year-old deaf Muslim girl’s removal from her family home. The family says the girl was wrongfully removed based on cultural assumptions.
The Colorado Department of Human Services is investigating other cases and assessments conducted by Niceta during her tenure with Arapahoe County, Luc Hatlestad, an Arapahoe County spokesman, said in an emailed statement. The investigation was launched at the county’s request and the county is prepared to take any necessary action once the investigation is finished, he said.
Hatlestad said the county was “appalled and concerned” about the allegations against Niceta. But his statement defended the human services department, saying the other complaints draw conclusions without citing facts.
“We are not aware of any evidence of widespread misconduct by the caseworkers and other professionals within the Arapahoe County Human Services Department, despite what is alleged in the complaints,” he said.
“You picked a fight with the wrong person”
Several people who attended the news conference with Jurinsky said their children had been taken wrongly by Arapahoe County human services.
Jurinsky and the families alleged their kids were removed from their homes without proper investigations and false testimony. While her case with Niceta led to the lawsuits, Jurinsky said she believes the issue is systemic.
She also insisted that her lawsuits had nothing to do with the bitter firing of Wilson, Niceta’s former partner. Wilson, who pushed for police department reform, was unpopular with conservatives on the Aurora City Council, including Jurinsky.
“This issue crosses all party lines,” Jurinsky said. “This is not a partisan issue. We are parents, and this should not happen to any parent or any child in this county, in this state, this country or the world, period. And this is going to end now. Robin Niceta, you picked a fight with the wrong person.”
Elliot A. Singer, the lawyer representing Jurinsky and the other plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit, said that families losing their children ties the cases together. Most of the other families reached out to Jurinsky after details of her case became public, she said.
The other families declined to talk with the media afterward, citing concerns about their cases.
Jurinsky said the cases were ultimately about “unchecked power” and “the wrong people in positions of power.”
Jurinsky faced anonymous accusations of child abuse in January. After finding the accusations unfounded, investigators began looking into who made the claim. Investigators determined Niceta had made a call to an anonymous tip line the day after Jurinsky made critical comments about Wilson on a radio program.
Efforts on Thursday to reach Niceta or her attorneys were unsuccessful. She resigned from the human services department in May and has since moved out of state, according to a July 26 court order filed in Arapahoe County District Court.
Niceta is scheduled to appear in court in person on Monday for a hearing on charges of attempting to influence a public servant and filing a false child abuse report. The prosecution is being handled by the Denver District Attorney’s Office.
Children being separated from parents
In the federal court case that names Arapahoe County’s human services and Niceta as defendants, a family says their daughter was taken from their home for more than a year after an American Sign Language interpreter at her school called human services to report the girl was being sexually assaulted by a 21-year-old cousin and that the family planned to send her to Africa to be stoned.
But when Niceta, along with police officers and other caseworkers, showed up at the family home they failed to properly assess the situation and any danger the child faced. Instead, Niceta called a judge and told him about the interpreter’s work and received permission to remove the girl.
“At the time of the removal, Niceta either falsely reported that she obtained verbal authorization from the court to remove the child or illegally obtained verbal authorization from the court, by stating that the child needed to be separated from her family due to Niceta’s own perceptions of their behavior,” the lawsuit said. “Niceta failed to document, pursuant to state regulations, this risk analysis.”
The child was placed under the supervision of the sign language interpreter, against the family’s wishes that another Muslim family care for their daughter, who wore a hijab and did not eat pork, the lawsuit said. She spent more than a year away from her family before she was allowed by the courts to move home.
The class action lawsuit did not name other people as plaintiffs with Jurinsky. But it included a long list of allegations to support claims that the county separated or attempted to separate children from their families without conducting adequate, thorough and constitutional investigations and introduced false testimony during judicial proceedings.
Through their actions, the defendants have “not strengthened families and have instead destroyed Arapahoe County families by baselessly and unconstitutionally separating or attempting to separate children from their parents or caretakers,” the lawsuit said.
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