Missing Cherokee County DSS minutes
The Cherokee County Board of Social Services minutes have a gap of three months in spring 2018 when meeting minutes are missing, right at the time the agency was under fire for child seizure procedures the courts have called "unlawful." Seen here are minutes leading up to the gap on the left and those following the gap on the right. Kate Martin / Carolina Public Press

Several months of meeting minutes and agendas at the Cherokee County Department of Social Services board are missing from the county’s files, Carolina Public Press has learned after filing a routine records request.

The events chronicled in those three months — March, April and May 2018 — came at a particularly tumultuous time in the department’s history. DSS faced civil litigation and state intervention over improper seizures of children, an issue that led to a State Bureau of Investigation probe in June 2018.

By March 2018, it had been known for months that Cherokee County DSS had taken children from parents without judicial oversight — a practice that some believe may have gone on for at least a decade if not longer.

District Court Judge Tessa Sellers ruled that month that documents called Custody and Visitation Agreements, which Cherokee County DSS had been using to take children, were “unlawful” and “the product of actual and constructive fraud” by then-DSS Director Cindy Palmer and former DSS attorney Scott Lindsay. Sellers also voided all other CVAs.

Following many months of investigation, the SBI released its findings to District Attorney Ashley Welch earlier this year. Because Welch’s job duties require interaction with Palmer’s husband, Cherokee County Sheriff Derrick Palmer, the DA recused herself from the case and passed the SBI findings on to the N.C. Department of Justice, which is currently reviewing them.

Cindy Palmer and others could potentially face criminal charges in connection with the custody agreements.

Cherokee County Courthouse in Murphy, N.C. Frank Taylor / Carolina Public Press
The Cherokee County Department of Social Services Board sometimes met in county commissioner chambers at the Cherokee County courthouse in Murphy. In September 2018, the commissioners dissolved the DSS board and made themselves the board. Frank Taylor / Carolina Public Press

Cherokee DSS meetings and minutes

Cherokee County’s Department of Social Services board conducted its regular meeting on the second Tuesday of every month.

Cherokee County provided CPP with more than a year’s worth of requested agendas and minutes, as well as closed session minutes. Its agendas are short and to the point, the text rarely occupying a full page, with a graphic befitting the season taking up the top third or so. The meeting minutes are concise but detailed.

However, when CPP pointed out that the March, April and May 2018 documents were missing, Cherokee County DSS Director Amanda McGee pointed to an agency 350 miles away.

“The records you have referenced are not contained in the files I have reviewed,” McGee wrote via email. “I suggest you contact (the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services), as it was DHHS that was in control of DSS at that time.”

In March 2018, Cindy Palmer was suspended as the NC Department of Health and Human Services stepped in to take control of the child welfare division at Cherokee County DSS, though not the entire DSS office, said Chris Mackey, a spokeswoman for DHHS in Raleigh.

When asked for minutes and agendas of those meetings, Mackey said DHHS doesn’t have them either.

“Everybody has looked, and we just don’t have anything,” she said. “We don’t have agendas or minutes or anything like that because it wasn’t our responsibility.”

What happened to the minutes?

Though the county doesn’t seem to have records of the meetings, former DSS board member Susan Landis shared the dates of open and closed meetings during which she took notes and sent them either to the DSS attorney, the chair of the board or both, she told CPP in an email this week.

Landis’ email, which included only meeting dates and no minutes, shows the DSS board conducted multiple special meetings per month as it learned the scope of the custody and visitation agreements.

Her email also paints an incomplete picture, as she said she didn’t always take notes during meetings.

Sometimes Murphy radio station WKRK posted Facebook live video shows of meetings. During one special meeting in April 2018, a WKRK post shows, then-DSS board member James Jallah asked why they weren’t reviewing minutes from the previous meeting.

“They have not been given to me to review,” said then-DSS board Chairperson Karen Kephart.

The contracted DSS attorney at the time, David Moore, said at that meeting he had received them but not yet reviewed them.

Minutes from other county-level boards and public records from DHHS also detail some issues the DSS board may have discussed during that three-month span.

That March, state DHHS released a report calling out then-director Palmer for “ineffective leadership and management” of the child welfare division. Palmer was placed on paid leave the following month, which extended through the middle of June, when she resigned and was immediately rehired as the business officer, county employment records show.

Robert Merrill, a DSS board member then — who served briefly as chairman before the county commissioners disbanded the board in September 2018 — told CPP last week that he thought the minutes were on file at DSS.

“It would be hard for me to comment on something from so long ago,” Merrill said.

Landis said any discussion of topics like the CVAs could have occurred in closed session. When the board did meet in closed session, Landis said she diligently took minutes and gave them to Moore or the board chair.

When contacted Friday by CPP, Moore said he doesn’t have them now either.

“I was not the custodian,” he said. “All I did was review them for potential confidentiality issues, and that’s it.”

Late Friday, Cherokee County DSS attorney Andria Duncan said she had found an agenda from the March 2018 meeting. Its sparse agenda noted five topics on a single page: review of board meeting minutes for February 2018; director’s items — budget info; statistical report; other business; and adjournment.

In response to a list of questions, Duncan could only give a virtual shrug. She had been hired by the DSS board as one of its final acts that summer, and the events surrounding the missing documents occurred before that.

“I was not employed here until July 2, 2018,” Duncan wrote in an email to CPP. “I will not speculate nor create answers about which I have no personal knowledge.”

Landis said she believes someone “dropped the ball.”

“I don’t know why DSS doesn’t have them, and since I took a lot of the minutes, there’s nothing to hide there. I don’t understand,” Landis said.

Why minutes matter

Nonexistent or missing minutes are a problem for Cherokee County or any government that doesn’t maintain proper records of meetings, said Amanda Martin, chief counsel for the N.C. Press Association.

Martin said if open meetings laws are not followed — for instance, if notice of the meeting were done improperly or not at all — any action taken at those meetings can be invalidated by a judge.

“I think improper documentation leaves a public agency open to a substantive challenge down the line,” Martin said. “If they are going to claim that they did everything properly and according to the law, they are going to have a hard time proving that without any minutes.”

Minutes are the official record of what occurred, a summary of actions taken by appointed or elected members of public agencies. They chronicle everything from high-profile inquests to deliberations of the mundane, from approving permits to policy changes.

A lack of minutes is not uncommon, especially in areas of the state with smaller, more obscure boards or commissions, said Brooks Fuller, director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition.

“The fact that no meeting minutes exist or the meeting minutes are not being kept or retained creates this massive blind spot for members of the public,” Fuller said. “This is such a simple mandate to meet.”

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Kate Martin is lead investigative reporter for Carolina Public Press. Email her at kmartin@carolinapublicpress.org.

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