Welcome to The Kicker from Carolina Public Press, a North Carolina news show bringing you conversations with journalists, sources and newsmakers from across the state.
In this episode, host Peter Kent and Carolina Public Press lead investigative reporter Kate Martin talk about her recent reporting on Cherokee County’s Department of Social Services, where a director who was suspended during a state criminal probe into unlawful seizures of children, was rehired last year, just before an effort to shred massive amounts of documents went into high gear. Some documents related to the state investigation are missing.
After the discovery in late 2017 that Cherokee County DSS was using a document not approved by the state, a “custody and visitation agreement,” to remove children from homes without judicial approval, the NC Department of Health and Human Services warned all social services agencies in the state not to do this.
Some families whose children had been taken in this way sued. In February 2018, a judge ruled that the agreements were both “unlawful” and a violation of the constitutional rights of the families. In March 2018, DHHS partially took control of Cherokee County DSS. The county’s DSS board suspended director Cindy Palmer in April 2018. A State Bureau of Investigation probe began around this time.
Due to the lawsuit, DSS received a warning not to destroy any documents related to child welfare. However, an effort to destroy old documents — on the surface a legal effort to clear space and convert files to electronic format — got underway at DSS in February 2018, resulting in a significant increase in the agency’s monthly bills for shredding services. During court testimony in February, one DSS worker testified that some of the relevant files could not be found.
In June 2018, Palmer returned to the agency as business officer despite her earlier suspension as director and the ongoing SBI probe. At about the same time, DSS dramatically increased the effort to purge documents. Whereas a typical monthly bill prior to the shredding effort earlier in the year would have been about $90, it was more than $180 in the months that followed. But the bill for shredding services during the second half of June 2018 and the first part of July 2018 was more than $3,300. The signature authorizing payment of that bill, was Cindy Palmer’s.
The space that was said to be so urgently needed to force this purge has not been used a year later.
Because the civil suit by parents has not received federal status, if child welfare documents were improperly destroyed, those involved could face federal obstruction of justice charges.
About The Kicker
The Kicker is a production of Carolina Public Press. It also airs weekly at 7 p.m. Wednesdays on WPVM radio 103.7 FM in Asheville. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to contact the staff of Carolina Public Press about The Kicker.