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

Journalism with impact

I want to receive independent, investigative local news every day.

Former Cherokee County Department Social Services Director Cindy Palmer may have lied under oath in a trial last year, according to a former attorney for Cherokee County’s Department of Social Services board.

The remarks from attorney David Moore came to light Tuesday, when Cherokee County released notes to Carolina Public Press from two closed board meetings from spring 2018.

The meeting notes reflect a department in turmoil as the state Department of Health and Human Services took control of its Child Protective Services division and employees rebelled against temporary leadership. The notes, taken by former board member Susan Landis, were never approved by the DSS board as minutes. They do fill in gaps of information for some but not all of the meetings from March, April and May 2018 for which the official minutes are missing, as CPP reported Tuesday. 

Officials in one of the sessions covered in the notes called into question whether Palmer told the truth to a judge in a case in which the judge said the department used improper agreements to take children from their parents.

The so-called “custody and visitation agreements” have since been ruled “unlawful” by the courts. District Court Judge Tessa Sellers ruled that the CVAs were “the product of both actual and constructive fraud” by DSS, its employees, former attorney Scott Lindsay and Director Palmer.

David Moore, who served as the attorney for DSS in the spring of 2018, told CPP Tuesday that the closed-meeting notes the county had just released accurately reflected both what he told the board in April and May 2018 and his recollections of those meetings.

The documents show the board debated what to do about Palmer, whom the board placed on paid leave earlier in April 2018, later extending that leave well into June.

“What I’ve always said is that it appears she may have committed perjury based on the testimony that she gave and the other evidence available,” Moore told CPP on Tuesday.

That evidence includes Palmer’s attendance at a “very specific training in 2016, with regard to safety agreements and custody, and when petitions should be filed and when there should be judicial oversight.”

Asked by CPP whether Moore meant that based on her training and experience, Palmer should have known better, Moore said, “Everybody should have known better.”

Moore told the board in April 2018 that Palmer was also the subject of a State Bureau of Investigation felony probe and that the county faced civil litigation due to her and others’ actions.

“If you are an employer, do you want someone who has engaged in dishonesty of any sort to be your employee?” Moore said to CPP this week.

“The SBI is heavily involved in this. I was interviewed by the SBI, and everybody else was interviewed by the SBI.”

The SBI doesn’t come to town “for simple administrative purposes,” he added. They are there, he said, to investigate “criminal activity or potential criminal activity.”

Palmer may have lied in court, notes say

In March 2018, DHHS had slammed Palmer’s leadership as “ineffective” and “inactive.”

“Her lack of knowledge and oversight created an environment for the Child Welfare Service to deteriorate into its current state, where child welfare practice is misaligned with law, rule and policy,” an assessment of Cherokee County DSS practices said.

By late April, the CVAs had been in the news for more than a month, the civil lawsuit against Cherokee County had moved to federal court, and the SBI had already begun to interview witnesses in what would become a sweeping probe of the department and its practice of removing children from their parents’ custody without judicial approval.

In this context, the DSS board met in closed session and discussed the situation, ultimately turning to Palmer’s testimony during a February 2018 court hearing.

Palmer took the stand during a sparsely attended hearing in Murphy, as a father tried and succeeded to invalidate the CVA for his daughter.

At times, parents said social workers threatened to place their children in foster care if they did not sign the paperwork. Some parents said social workers told them their legal woes and mandatory drug testing would end if they signed the papers. Two parents whom CPP interviewed said the same thing earlier this year.

Attorneys interviewed several witnesses, Palmer among them, about the use of CVAs.

“What was the first time you heard of (a CVA)?” one attorney asked.

Palmer replied under oath, “The first time I ever recall hearing of one was Dec. 6, 2017, when I received a call from Mr. Lindsay about a similar agreement.”

It is these comments that Moore tells the board are problematic.

“Mr. Moore said it appears that Ms. Palmer may have lied under oath about her knowledge regarding the CVAs. Because Ms. Palmer was the director of DSS, a lack of oversight could mean felony charges for her,” the notes from the April 26, 2018, DSS closed session say.

DSS board member and County Commissioner Dr. Dan Eichenbaum “asked if the former DSS attorney who approved the CVAs would provide some cover for Ms. Palmer in terms of her legal jeopardy,” the April 26 meeting notes say.

The reply from Moore and DHHS Assistant Secretary Michael Becketts was an unequivocal no: “Mr. Becketts and Mr. Moore indicated that her training in 2016 had covered the appropriate department procedures that should have been followed regarding custody removals. The 2016 training was clear and direct and taught procedures and rules regarding maintaining parental rights.”  

Moore told CPP this week that Eichenbaum was referring to former DSS attorney Lindsay, whom Palmer announced she had decided to fire in January 2018.

CPP attempted to contact Eichenbaum about why he would seek to have the case against Lindsay provide “cover” for Palmer, but he did not respond prior to publication of this article.

David Wijewickrama, one of several attorneys representing parents in the federal court lawsuit, said after the practice of using CVAs came to light, “The first thing I saw was finger-pointing and denial. What I couldn’t understand was, for God’s sake, we are talking about children’s lives. Could anybody give a damn about the fact that children could be in harm’s way?”

Employee loyalty to Palmer

The board placed Palmer on paid leave in mid-April 2018, after two staff members voiced their support for Palmer in an open session, notes from the open session show. That same day, the board hired an interim DSS director, Kay Fields, through a staffing firm. Fields, now the interim director for Graham County DSS, did not return a request for comment.

Fields told the board in an April closed session that though employees were stressed and anxious about changes, workers were “very cooperative and understand that change can be difficult.”

That tune had changed by May, the meeting notes show:

“Mr. Moore said that there is a faction of DSS employees who have been very loyal to Ms. Palmer and have been resistant to Ms. Fields’ direction.”

Moore told the board members that Palmer had applied for the vacant business officer post, a position she held before she became director in 2016.

“Having her at DSS under these circumstances could contribute to continued problems at the department,” the meeting notes say. “There is still the possibility that legal or criminal charges could be filed against Ms. Palmer.”

“Palmer’s lack of oversight has cost the county tens of thousands of dollars,” the notes from the May meeting say in part. “Moore said that he is confident that if the board decided to remove Ms. Palmer as director, the board would prevail in any legal actions. Mr. Moore said that the renegade culture at DSS that exists now is pervasive and destructive.

“The investigation into Palmer’s behavior as director indicates a hands-off, casual management style, a lot of information suggesting that she had to know about the use of CVAs despite her denial in court, and a structureless supervision style,” the notes say.

Palmer resigned June 11, 2018, as director, the position from which the DSS board had suspended her with pay. She was immediately rehired as DSS business officer, the position she had held prior to becoming director in 2016. Fields left DSS in July 2018.

Carolina Public Press attempted to reach several people mentioned in this story but did not hear back from Palmer, Eichenbaum, Lindsay and Fields.

Journalism that makes a difference

Trying to decipher what's true and what's not is hard enough these days. Subscribe free to receive our non-partisan, independent journalism every day.

When the SBI completed its investigation earlier this year, it passed the file on to District Attorney Ashley Welch. Because Palmer is married to Cherokee County Sheriff Derrick Palmer, with whom the DA must interact frequently, Welch recused herself from the case and asked the N.C. Department of Justice to take it over. As a result, DOJ will decide whether to prosecute Palmer or anyone else in relation to the CVAs.

CPP contacted DHHS and DOJ on Tuesday about the discussion of criminal offenses in the notes, but both agencies said they would not comment at this time.


You can strengthen independent, in-depth and investigative news for all of North Carolina

Carolina Public Press is transforming from a regionally focused nonprofit news organization to the go-to independent, in-depth and investigative news arm for North Carolina. You are critical to this transformation — and the future of investigative and public interest reporting for all North Carolinians.

Unlike many others, we aren’t owned by umbrella organizations or corporations. And we haven’t put up a paywall — we believe that fact-based, context-rich watchdog journalism is a vital public service. But we need your help. Carolina Public Press’ in-depth, investigative and public interest journalism takes a lot of money, persistence and hard work to produce. We are here because we believe in and are dedicated to the future of North Carolina.

So, if you value independent, in-depth and investigative reporting in the public interest for North Carolina, please take a moment to make a tax-deductible contribution. It only takes a minute and makes a huge difference. Thank you!

Kate Martin

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

Join the Conversation

2 Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *