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

A fracas over confidential records related to a felony child abuse case in Western North Carolina, in which a family is accused of raping and prostituting at least one of their three children, has a district attorney asking a judge to force the release of records that the Cherokee County Department of Social Services has so far not produced.

In more than a dozen years as a prosecutor and another four years since becoming district attorney, Ashley Welch has never seen anything like this case, she told Carolina Public Press.

Last week, the DA’s office took the unusual step of filing a motion to compel Cherokee County DSS to provide records related to a felony child abuse case, which a judge granted. Cherokee County DSS must provide the documents by Thursday or explain to a judge why it refuses to comply with the order.

Peg Dorer, director of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, said court orders are not typically necessary for a DSS office to provide records on juvenile cases to a prosecutor.

“Most DSS records are open to DAs, and they can just request them,” Dorer said. When asked how the DA must ask for records, she said, “I am sure it varies from district to district.”

Disputes between prosecutors and one of the defense attorneys in the case have also become bitter, as a formal complaint has been filed against the law license of an assistant district attorney and the State Bureau of Investigation has launched a probe into the defense attorney who made that complaint.

Horrific allegations of abuse

The abuse case in question includes shocking allegations that first drew the attention of authorities several years ago due to a lack of “basic needs of food or water,” according to grand jury indictments of the suspects between 2015 and 2019.

The parents used intravenous drugs in the presence of their children and failed to provide adequate nutrition and hygiene, the indictments said.

But as the months and years passed, law enforcement learned more about appalling conditions in the home. In recent years, prosecutors filed additional charges that include aiding and abetting incest, incest, child prostitution and other felony sex offenses involving the mother, father, uncle and one other female relative, resulting in additional indictments.

As the criminal case against these four adults reaches a head, Welch said her office lacks key documents that DSS has so far refused to provide.

It usually doesn’t take much to get access to a DSS file, Welch said. Often a judge will review the records in private before handing potential evidence to prosecutors. Files can include medical records, statements that victims give to caregivers and records of interviews that may have taken place involving the child.

“All of that is relevant in a criminal case,” Welch said, speaking of DSS files in general. “We don’t know until we get it.”

State law allows DSS offices to disclose records to prosecutors without a court order, said Sara DePasquale, an associate professor specializing in child welfare law at the UNC School of Government.

“If the purpose of the record request is to protect a juvenile, then no court order would be needed,” DePasquale told CPP.

CPP sent a detailed list of questions to Cherokee County DSS Director Amanda McGee and DSS attorney Andria Duncan. Neither had responded prior to publication of this article.

Those questions included whether anyone at DSS knew where the files were and why the agency so far has refused to hand the records to prosecutors.

Welch said she spent 12 years in the far western prosecutorial district pursuing cases against people charged with abusing children before being elected to her current post. She said she can’t recall ever having to file a motion to compel records from a DSS office.

Long delay under fire

The mother’s defense attorney, Bill Shilling, told CPP in an email that he thinks it has taken far too long for the District Attorney’s Office to bring the case to trial.

A grand jury first indicted his client for neglect in 2015. Since that time, new charges against her and three other defendants, represented by three other lawyers, have been filed as law enforcement and prosecutors learn more about what happened.

The indictments said one of the girls was 3 years old when the abuse began, which lasted for roughly three years. She is now 10 years old.

That it took years for her to tell anyone about the extent of the abuse should not be a surprise, said Mark Everson, who leads the University of North Carolina program on childhood trauma and maltreatment. In fact, many people who suffered childhood abuse do not even talk about it until they are well into adulthood.

“The more severe the abuse, the more pervasive and chronically abused, the more likely they are to delay and only tell parts of it,” Everson told CPP. “It is disclosed gradually.”

Children may feel full of shame for what happened to them, as though it may have been their own fault they were abused, Everson said.

Because of that feeling of shame, “often they are inconsistent, and there may be times they recant,” Everson said.

Children may recant abuse statements if they feel there are repercussions for telling or based on the reactions of those they tell, he said.

While Everson isn’t familiar with this particular case, he said whether a criminal case results in a conviction often depends a great deal on whether children know they will be in a stable home environment away from their abusers.

Lawyer complaints and investigations

Shilling in late March issued a bar complaint against Assistant District Attorney Kimberly Harris over her office’s handling of his client’s case. Then in April, Shilling tried to get a judge to remove Welch’s entire prosecutorial office from the case.

Shilling said in his complaint that Harris improperly interviewed one of the girls without the permission of Cherokee County DSS and that Harris did not notify the attorney advocate for the guardian ad litem program, Darryl Brown.

Welch said Harris did nothing wrong.

“Anybody can file a bar complaint,” Welch said. “You don’t see the guardian ad litem attorney filing the complaint. You don’t see the DSS attorney filing the complaint. It’s one of the criminal defense attorneys filing the complaint.”

This is not Shilling’s first run-in with Welch. She was working as a prosecutor in Macon County in 2013 when Shilling was charged with child abuse related to a domestic violence incident involving his then-wife and middle school-aged son.

At various times, Shilling threatened to dismember his son, kill his family and burn the family dog on the front lawn, according to his former wife’s civil filings.

Welch said she was initially on the prosecution team, but “unfortunately I unknowingly became a witness to the case.”

Shilling ultimately pleaded guilty to misdemeanor child abuse and later served time for violating a domestic violence protection order. He eventually lost his law license for nearly two years and was ordered to pay fines and undergo therapy for anger management issues. Shilling’s law license was reinstated in late 2015.

In an email to Carolina Public Press, Shilling said, “Now the district attorney’s office is using taxpayer money to have the State Bureau of Investigation investigate me with regard to this (Cherokee County child abuse) case.”

Shilling said he did not know anything else about the state’s investigation into his conduct.

“The SBI is conducting an obstruction-of-justice investigation into William Shilling,” SBI spokeswoman Anjanette Grube told CPP. “It is an ongoing investigation.”

The SBI has recently investigated Cherokee County DSS over cases in which the agency used a form the courts have since ruled unlawful to seize children without judicial approval.

CPP’s reporting has raised questions about the large-scale shredding of DSS files during the time the SBI’s investigation was underway. The SBI’s report in that case has been turned over to the N.C. Department of Justice for possible charges.

Previous request

Grube said Welch referred the case to the SBI but could not elaborate further. Welch also declined to elaborate.

In March, the DA’s office sought a similar judicial order for DSS to release documents in the case. The judge ordered defense attorney Zeyland McKinney to draft the order for the DSS records. McKinney represents one of the four defendants in the case and said he delayed drafting the order because the judge never said whether he would conduct a review of the records behind closed doors, called an in-camera inspection, before giving them out.

“All I want is for the judge to turn the records over so I can defend my client,” McKinney told CPP. “I’ve never seen so much damn controversy over the production of records.”

McKinney said he’s never seen a DSS office in the far western district unreasonably withhold records before, including Cherokee County DSS.

“You have to follow the law, and it requires in-camera inspections,” McKinney said. “I am going to follow the law.”

Without the records, Welch said, she will proceed anyway, though attorneys for defendants may argue that without the records they cannot adequately defend their clients.

Welch said she has never had so much trouble getting records for a child abuse case. She last heard the DSS office intended to comply with last week’s judge’s order but so far remains skeptical.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” she said Monday. “We just won’t know until the deadline comes and goes.”

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