Removal of Cherokee County children draws lawsuit, criminal charges possible

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Cherokee County Courthouse in Murphy, N.C. Frank Taylor / Carolina Public Press

A district court ruled after a Feb. 28, 2018, District Court hearing at the Cherokee County Courthouse in Murphy that the county’s Department of Social Services was forcing parents to sign unlawful documents. The case has drawn a federal lawsuit and may now lead to criminal charges. Frank Taylor / Carolina Public Press

Dozens of children in Cherokee County faced unlawful removal from their families until the state stepped in late in 2017, according to state officials and a federal lawsuit from affected families.

Now, the state Department of Justice is considering criminal charges against Cindy Palmer, the Cherokee County Department of Social Service’s former director, and possibly others. At the same time, the plaintiffs’ lawyers in the federal suit are seeking class-action status, alleging a series of rights violations against a potentially substantial number of families who were not identified in the State Bureau of Investigation’s probe of the situation.

For some parents, the county threatened to place their children in foster care unless they signed a document called a custody and visitation agreement, or CVA, the families’ lawsuit claims. Signing the agreement meant the threats from DSS would disappear, parents say they were told. But most parents had no way of knowing that the threats they were receiving and the documents they were being ordered to sign were “outside of law and policy,” according to the N.C. Department Health and Human Services. 

Two parents interviewed by Carolina Public Press this week said DSS workers threatened to take their children and place them into foster care unless they signed the CVAs, allegations that also appear in the lawsuit.

In reality, according to testimony by former DSS workers before District Court Judge Tessa Sellers in Murphy last year, the documents were authorized without judicial approval or oversight.

Once parents signed the CVA, the county closed their cases and ceased all services to the parents and children — even in a case where a baby was born with drug addiction, the workers told the court. The judge ruled the CVA documents unconstitutional as a result of that hearing, effectively voiding the previously signed documents. 

“The CVA is the product of both actual and constructive fraud on behalf of the Cherokee County Department of Social Services, its agents and employees and attorney Scott Lindsay and Director Cindy Palmer,” Sellers ruled, also saying that it violated the constitutional rights of those affected.

 

 

Another parent, Tienda Rose Phillips, told CPP that she resisted signing the paper for as long as she could, but then DSS threatened to place her son in foster care. Only later did an attorney tell her that the threats were a ruse to get her to sign an unlawful document, which a DSS official told her granted custody of her 7-year-old son to her mother for an out-of-state trip, she said.

“It did seem sketchy, but when you have someone who you think is over you and is threatening foster care, who you know can take your kid, you kind of do what they say,” Phillips said. “You kind of feel you have no choice.”

The SBI opened a sprawling probe into DSS practices and workers in late 2017. Dozens of parents testified to SBI agents in Murphy last year, attorney Melissa Jackson recently told CPP.

“They had seven or eight agents doing interviews simultaneously,” said Jackson, who helped organize nearly two dozen clients to speak with agents at that time. “They were doing interviews for at least two days.”

Phillips told CPP that she did not realize what had happened until the lawyer contacted her. “I got a call from Melissa Jackson when I found out the paper was no good,” Phillips said. “My son had already come home. The troubles and the tears and stuff threatening to put my child in a foster care home was all fake.”

The SBI turned over the results of its investigation of Cherokee County’s DSS to District Attorney Ashley Welch earlier this year. Welch then handed the case to the state Attorney General’s Office due to a conflict of interest. The Attorney General’s Office confirmed to CPP that it is reviewing the case.

Cindy Palmer’s administration

Palmer ran the agency from early 2016 until late 2017, when the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services took control. She and another DSS employee were placed on paid suspension in April 2018, but Palmer returned to DSS later that year as the agency’s business officer.

She now makes $55,300 per year — $7,564 more than when she was in the same position nearly four years ago before becoming the agency director, according to county records.

Cindy Palmer, former Cherokee County social services director. Courtesy of Cherokee County

Palmer is also the wife of Cherokee County Sheriff Derrick Palmer, whose administration is the subject of separate and ongoing SBI investigations that could result in criminal charges related to the detention center’s alleged culture of “jailhouse justice” and the medical attention given to an inmate who later died. Both the sheriff’s and his wife’s agencies have been under investigation for months in these separate matters.

In a radio address last week, Sheriff Palmer said the past year has been “very stressful on me and my wife” due to “everything that’s been printed and everything that’s going on and the gossip and rumor mill.”

“All we ever wanted to do was help our community and serve people,” he said. “You know, sometimes people don’t respect that and sometimes people don’t believe that, and they say and do all kind of things that’s hurtful.”

Neither of the Palmers returned a request for comment or answered a question about whether either of them had retained an outside attorney related to the pending criminal investigations. Cherokee County DSS Director Amanda McGee said she has no comment on the civil litigation or the criminal investigation, and County Attorney Darryl Brown said he also had no comment.

How many Cherokee County families affected?

The previous county attorney, Scott Lindsay, who also advised DSS during this time, testified in court he did not invent the CVA, but borrowed the concept from another attorney he met at a training conference. 

In all, Lindsay told the court, he believes there were about 30 such agreements from 2014 through the end of 2017.

However, David Wijewickrama, one of five attorneys representing families in the civil lawsuit, believes far more people signed the unlawful custody agreements over a longer time period than has been reported so far.

“I think hundreds of families are involved,” he said.

“And hundreds of children. I say that based on the math and what social workers have told us.”

How the removals worked

Once parents signed the agreement, said former DSS child protective unit supervisor David Hughes, that closed the case, and social workers did not typically follow up with families afterward. He told the mother of a baby who had been born with a methamphetamine addiction that her case would be closed, according to a transcript of court testimony in 2018.

When asked if there was ever any follow-up on children or families after CVAs were filed, he said: “After the case was closed, no.”

Hannah Allen, a parent in Cherokee County, said DSS workers threatened to put her son, who was then living with a cousin, into foster care unless she signed the agreement. In addition, she said, DSS workers said they would use her own time in the foster system against her as a reason her child should be taken away.

“How they really did me was dirty,” she said. “They were trying to put my son in foster care where I wouldn’t be able to get him back.”

Fearing her son would be taken from her, Allen relented. When she arrived at the DSS office to sign the paper, she was rattled. Someone read the document to her.

“I’ve never had to deal with this stuff before,” she said. “They had someone there notarize the papers while we were there. There were no judges in front of us.”

Through the flames

Sheriff Palmer, in his radio appearance last week, said God is with him. At one point during the interview, his voice grew hoarse with emotion as he said he confided in a friend about his and his wife’s troubles. But he took solace in his faith, Palmer said.

“God never promised to keep bad things from happening to us, He never did,” Palmer said, citing Isaiah 43:2, When thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.”

“Even though there’s enemies out there, even though there’s people trying to tear you down,” the sheriff said, “even though there’s things being printed about you and said about you and you can’t even say anything on the radio without someone trying to make an issue of it, trying to make a story about it and those kind of things, one thing that I do claim and I do realize is — when you are in the midst of the fire, God will be in the fire with you.”

CPP asked Cherokee County DSS officials this week about why Cindy Palmer was still working there after having been implicated in the case and on the receiving end of several negative rulings, including Judge Sellers’ characterization of her role in a “fraud.” But DSS officials said they couldn’t comment on a personnel issue.

Wijewickrama, one of the attorneys representing families in the federal suit, expressed shock that DSS had rehired her, even in a different position.

“I am shocked beyond words that she is still there,” Wijewickrama told CPP. “It is inexplicable to me that she is still there.”

The attorney also said the lawsuit is designed to go the distance.

“We are preparing this case to try it to a jury, and we are preparing this case for multiple appeals,” he said.