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

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 Cherokee County’s Department of Social Services turned over to a judge records that have been long sought by the district attorney regarding an egregious case of alleged child abuse.

The filing comes days after Carolina Public Press wrote about the monthslong dispute over documents held by DSS regarding the case. The District Attorney’s Office had taken the rare step of seeking a judge’s order to force DSS to hand over the child abuse records.

“This is exactly what we wanted,” said District Attorney Ashley Welch of the latest development. “We can proceed (to trial) now.”

The case is now set for a tentative November trial date, she said.

Grand jury indictments lay out serious child abuse charges against four defendants in a case that started with child neglect and escalated to rape, incest and child prostitution charges involving the mother, father, uncle and another related woman.

The indictments say the abuse occurred over the course of several years, starting when one child was 3 years old. When one child was between the ages of 3 and 5, the father traded sexual access to one girl in exchange for hypodermic needles and controlled substances, one indictment says.

However, prosecution of the case has been held up due to a lack of documents from DSS, Welch said recently. If the defendants were convicted without being given access to those files, their attorneys could file an appeal because they lacked the information to adequately defend their clients.

Although prosecutors have already worked on the case and secured indictments against the suspects, access to the records will also be useful, as they look for additional evidence for trial, Welch said.

“If you have a victim who discloses to multiple people and the story is consistent, those people could be witnesses for us,” Welch said.

Big misunderstanding in child abuse case?

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DSS Director Amanda McGee on a local radio show Tuesday said her office has no reason to deny access to the District Attorney’s Office.

“It’s regretful there were some communications mishaps, perhaps, if that’s what we could call it, that led to what was said in the article and the motion,” McGee said on WKRK, a Christian radio station in Murphy.  “I didn’t realize there was a significant problem. I thought we were waiting for them to copy the records.”

McGee said DSS and the DA’s office have aligned interests to protect children and vulnerable adults.

“There are no reasons we would not produce records for this kind of an important case,” McGee said. “We want perpetrators to be brought to justice.”

DSS did not respond to CPP’s request for comment last week, but in its six-page court filing Tuesday, the DSS department attorney, Andria Duncan, wrote that DSS has never refused to give documents to the District Attorney’s Office, and it wasn’t about to start now.

However, the DSS filing says the department required certain elements to be present before giving records to prosecutors, such as a protective order to prevent case files from being disclosed to others. The filing says DSS received a subpoena for the records sometime in March or April.

The DSS office had produced records related to one of the children back in 2016, the department filing says. Additional charges were filed against family members in mid-2019.

Welch said she, the DSS director and its attorney were present at a meeting Tuesday afternoon.

“It was very, very positive,” Welch said. “I think they did not realize how important it was for us to get these records. … I think at this point the important thing is that they have complied, and I think in the future this is not likely to happen again.”

That three-year gap had one of the defense attorneys, Bill Shilling, crying foul. Shilling said the case had taken too long to go to trial, and in late March he filed a bar complaint and sought to have the entire DA’s office removed from the case.

Shilling took issue with Assistant District Attorney Kimberly Harris traveling a second time to South Carolina to interview the primary witness, a 10-year-old girl, without the permission of Darryl Brown, who represents the girl’s interests in his role as the attorney advocate for the guardian ad litem program.

Cherokee DSS had placed the girl at a South Carolina psychiatric facility for children nearly three hours from Murphy, one of Shilling’s complaints says.

However, Welch said one of the guardians ad litem was present for the interview, despite what Shilling’s complaint said.


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Kate Martin

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

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