HOUSTON (CN) — A former juvenile detention officer says she was fired after her employer, a Texas county, gave her an unconstitutional ultimatum: Give up your foster kids or your job.
Nikia Johnson sued Fort Bend County on Monday in Federal Court.
Fort Bend County, pop. 652,000, is the wealthiest county in Texas, with a $95,389 median household income, according to the Census figures. Part of Greater Houston, it is also one of the most ethnically diverse counties in the United States.
In 2010 it was 36 percent Anglo, 24 percent Latino, 21 percent African-American and 19 percent Asian, according to a 2013 report from Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research.
The county hired Johnson as a guard at its juvenile jail in August 2011. By August 2014, “she also was a parent of as many as 5 foster children,” the complaint states.
An adoption agency asked her in February this year to adopt a boy who was in county custody because he had nowhere to go, but she says she rejected the offer due to “concerns” about the boy.
“Johnson was persuaded by another employee of Fort Bend County’s juvenile system, Michael Burrows, to take the child. She disclosed to Michael Burrows that she was also an employee of the Fort Bend juvenile system. … Burrows told a supervisor of Johnson’s that he was concerned her being a foster parent may pose a conflict of interest,” the complaint states.
Johnson says county officials decided there was no conflict because she was not running a home business: Texas was not paying her to be a foster mother, it was only reimbursing her expenses.
But county investigators “began fabricating potential conflicts of interest that could arise because Johnson was a foster parent,” Johnson says in the complaint.
She says an employee asked her what would happen if her foster child ended up in the county’s juvenile jail.
“When Johnson responded that it would be the same thing as when a biological child of a juvenile department employee ended up in the juvenile system, the employee responded that biological children were different,” the complaint states.
“The investigating employees also raised the issue of potential negative media coverage of Johnson’s parenting of foster kids as a risk to the department.
“Ultimately, Fort Bend County violated Johnson’s constitutional rights by giving Johnson a choice between being a foster parent or continuing to work in her job. Johnson refused to give up her remaining foster children and was fired in February of 2016.”
Johnson seeks damages for civil rights violations, including violations of due process and
42 U.S.C. § 1983.
She cites Moore v. City of East Cleveland (1977), in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an Ohio zoning ordinance that prevented a woman from living with her two grandchildren was unconstitutional.
She is represented by Hessam Parzivand in Stafford, Texas.
“She continues to be a foster parent at this time,” Parzivand said in an email.
The county’s attorney, Roy Cordes, said Tuesday that the county it had not been served so he could not comment.