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

For Cindy Palmer, the job opening in May 2018 came at just the right time.

In mid-April 2018, the Cherokee County Department of Social Services board had suspended Palmer as director, pending a State Bureau of Investigation criminal probe of her leadership at DSS.

In February 2018, a judge shot down the agency’s practice of removing children from their parents without judicial involvement, saying the documents used to carry out the practice, called “custody and visitation agreements,” were “unlawful” and “a product of actual and constructive fraud.”

As evidence and innuendo mounted against her in early 2018, the board considered firing her, one former board member told Carolina Public Press.

Palmer had ascended to the director’s position in 2016 after serving as DSS business officer for six years.

About a month into Palmer’s paid leave, her old position as business officer became available due a timely voluntary demotion. This allowed Palmer to resign as director but return to the agency in the lower position, even as the DSS board considered terminating her from her leadership position and the SBI probe continued.

“To be honest, it solved the problem for the board,” former board member Susan Landis told CPP. The board only had the authority to hire or fire the director, not anyone else.

“It solved an issue of whether or not we were eventually going to have to remove the director.”

Although the county advertised the job opening internally and externally for seven days, officials say they didn’t have to.  

Then-interim director Kay Fields posted the job online so anyone could apply. Responses were due in a week. By the time the posting closed, Palmer and five others from outside Cherokee County had applied.

Fields convened a panel to select the most qualified applicant. Fields has declined to speak with CPP about the hiring process.

Palmer resigned from her directorship and then accepted the business officer position on June 11, 2018. The move kept her working in an office even as the SBI continued to investigate potential felonies.

The results of that investigation have since been turned over to the N.C. Attorney General’s Office, which is reviewing the findings for potential charges.

Unlawful seizures

The potential crimes stem from long-standing practices at Cherokee DSS to separate children from families, sometimes using coercion to convince parents to sign the official-looking CVA documents.

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

In those cases, DSS workers threatened to place children into foster care unless parents signed CVAs. Once parents signed, the county closed the cases, and all services to the family ceased. DSS workers then removed the children from their parents.

To this day, the tally of how many of these unlawful agreements were executed is uncertain. One social work supervisor said he oversaw “somewhere between probably 20 and 24.” David Moore, an attorney who once advised the DSS board, told the board in closed session in May 2018 of suspicions of “about 50 cases total.”

But attorneys representing parents say they believe the number is far greater, possibly into the hundreds. Testimony from social workers indicate this practice took place for about a decade, but so far nobody has said for sure.

One problem is knowing how complete the record is.

Court testimony from a social work supervisor said files from CVA cases in 2009 were missing. The DSS agency in early 2018 also started a curiously timed massive shredding campaign, which went into high gear after Palmer returned to the agency in June 2018. The effort was supposedly designed to create urgently needed space and did not touch child welfare documents, which DSS had been ordered not to destroy. But a year later, the space remains unused. Whether any additional child welfare documents went missing remains uncertain.

Clouded discussions of Palmer’s future

Under the cloud of the court rulings, criminal probe and lawsuit, the DSS board considered what to do about Palmer in 2018. As weeks turned into more than a month on leave, it became clear to the board’s acting attorney, Moore, that the allegations against her were serious, notes from closed meetings show.

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

At a meeting the following month, Moore told the board that Palmer had applied for the open post. Notes from the closed meeting cited “pros and cons,” with the list of cons substantially longer than the pros.

“It would end any action that the board might take regarding her employment status, but having her at DSS under these circumstances could contribute to continued problems at the department,” the notes from the meeting say, adding that criminal or legal challenges could still be filed against her.

“Palmer’s lack of oversight had cost the county tens of thousands of dollars,” the negatives continued. “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.”

In Palmer’s favor were letters that community members, employees and DSS directors from surrounding counties sent to DSS and county commissioners in the days leading up to Palmer’s suspension and while the board considered her fate.

Thirty-four DSS employees signed one letter the board received the day before Palmer’s suspension. It praised Palmer’s support of the office and compassion toward needs in the community.

“She is a good Christian woman, who is very involved in the community and always takes time to help anyone in need,” the letter said.

Department directors from neighboring Clay and nearby Jackson counties also lauded Palmer’s ethics and professionalism, and said she was an example of someone who freely gave advice. In plain terms, their letters, received via a records request, urged the DSS board to keep her in some capacity, without any mention of the unlawful CVAs, which had been publicized in an Associated Press article by that time.

“Cindy elicits strong moral values for herself and other staff,” wrote Jackson County DSS director Jennifer Abshire. ” … Cindy is a good, strong, moral person that anyone would be lucky to have on their staff.”

Debbie Mauney, the director of Clay County’s Health and Human Services Agency, said she first met Palmer in 2005 and mentored Palmer when she became the director in 2016.

“It did not take long after meeting Cindy to know that she is a person of integrity and a hard worker,” Mauney said. “Cindy has exhibited a passion for the families and children in Cherokee County and her staff.”

The then-business officer, Mandi Amos, sent her own glowing two-page letter in favor of Palmer’s continued employment. Amos had worked with Palmer her entire career and at one point served as Palmer’s intern, her letter says.

When Palmer ascended to director in March 2016, Amos was promoted to business officer the month after. They then shared an office suite, Amos’ letter says.

“We have worked closely the past two years,” Amos wrote. “Cindy’s dedication to the agency, the workers and our citizens has outshined any previous director I have ever worked under.”

Amos wrote that once Palmer learned of the CVAs, “she immediately set out on trying to find a solution to correct the issue. She was simply trying to make a wrong right. And that has always been the Cindy I know. … She has honesty, compassion, character and a reputation that is second to none.”

Amos’ letter was dated May 8, 2018. But county records show that she asked about a voluntary demotion at least two weeks before, paving the way for Palmer to be brought back into DSS.

“Mandi has already said that regardless of what happens, she’d like to step back to intake,” said an April 2018 email from Cherokee County human resources director Melody Johnson to the county manager.

These letters of support stood in sharp contrast to a scathing review Palmer received from N.C. DHHS two weeks before her suspension.

The 10-page letter said assessing Palmer’s leadership had revealed a “systemic lack of adequate training, supervision or capacity to deliver appropriate child welfare services and a disregard for the rights and interests of parents and children that go beyond Custody and Visitation Agreements.”

“The Director’s leadership is at best described as inactive,” the document said, adding that she “failed to execute her duties as director for key procedures in child welfare. … 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.”

Suspended, but with a way out

In her email to the county manager, human resources director Johnson said she had received advice from a former state worker on whether the county must advertise an open posting if workers want to move to a lower position.

The answer was no, she wrote, and that applied, too, if the interim director wanted to allow Palmer to return to the lower business officer position.

Fields posted the business officer job anyway on May 15, 2018. The window for applicants would close a week later.

Diane Juffras, a professor with the UNC School of Government, told CPP last week that none of this appears to break any laws. State regulations require that any positions posted outside the agency must be posted for at least seven days.

“So although an agency could advertise for a longer period, the county, in this case, would not have violated the law by advertising for only seven days,” Juffras said.

The county could have chosen to exclude Palmer because of the SBI probe and related issues but wasn’t required to do so, according to Juffras.

“I am not aware of anything that would require the county to exclude the subject of an open SBI investigation or a suspended employee from the position of DSS business officer,” she said.

“I will grant that it seems unusual for the agency to allow someone suspended from one position in a department to be moved into another position in the same department.”

 From the pool of applicants, a panel that included Fields but no DSS board members chose the finalists.

While board members didn’t participate in screening candidates, they were told that Palmer stood out as clearly the most qualified since she had previously held the business officer position.

The county, which is geographically isolated, has historically had trouble finding and keeping qualified applicants for social services positions.

The DSS board minutes show high turnover for lower-level posts, and Palmer’s remarks to the board display her concerns for the low pay and high stress that drive these workers to other counties or out of social work altogether.

Even for the directorship, Landis said, it was tough getting candidates to Cherokee County for an interview. The nearest major airport is nearly two hours away in Tennessee.

“People apply online, and then when they get the details of where we are, what the workload is and what the salary is, they go, ‘Oh never mind. I’m not interested,’” Landis said recently.

Internally, Amos’ voluntary demotion and Palmer’s return to a lower post were pitched to the county manager as “a great idea.”

Amos and Palmer together represented a deep bench of experience in social work, wrote human resources director Johnson. And because the business officer worked so closely with the finance office, the county wouldn’t have to train anyone new.

“I can’t think of a better way out of a difficult scenario than this proposal,” Johnson wrote.

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