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

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The State Bureau of Investigation is continuing to look into possible felonies at Cherokee County’s Department of Social Services, nearly a year and a half after its investigation began.

Current and former workers of Cherokee County’s DSS office, including former director Cindy Palmer, are under investigation related to removing children from parents without judicial oversight using a document called a custody and visitation agreement or CVA. Social workers at the office did so for more than a decade, according to testimony in court last year.

Whether the agents are now looking at related issues that have come to light in recent months remains unclear.

Although suspended as director in March 2018, Cherokee County DSS rehired Palmer as the office’s business officer in June 2018, and she continues in that role despite the ongoing criminal probe.

Agents at the SBI started looking into Cherokee County’s child welfare office after District Attorney Ashley Welch and at least one area judge notified the agency of potential crimes in March 2018. One district court judge called the DSS office’s practice “unlawful” and the “product of actual and constructive fraud.”

Speaking with CPP this week, SBI spokeswoman Angie Grube confirmed the timeline of the SBI investigation.

Earlier this year, the SBI turned its case file over to Welch. She recused herself from prosecuting the DSS case shortly after receiving the file. One of the targets of the SBI’s investigation is Cindy Palmer, the wife of Cherokee County Sheriff Derrick Palmer, with whom Welch’s job often requires her to coordinate efforts.

Generally, when case files are turned over to prosecutors, that is typically a sign the SBI’s investigation is largely complete, Grube said. In some cases, the agency may have more work to do, she said.

“At the time they turned it over to me, they had completed the investigation,” Welch said Tuesday of the DSS case.

“It’s entirely possible, and I wouldn’t have knowledge, that they could be investigating it at the request from another agency.”

The N.C. Department of Justice’s special prosecutors office will consider whether to charge anyone with a crime.

“An investigation is never technically over until the trial is done,” Welch said. “I wouldn’t have any knowledge if they have been asked to investigate more because it’s out of my purview now.”

In a typical investigation, Welch said, she would pore over the case files from the SBI and might seek clarification on some points. More information could come to light, and the DA could ask the SBI to pivot and seek more about that new topic, Welch said about cases in general.

Grube didn’t say whether the agents are seeking new information or the investigation has taken a different turn at the behest of some other agency, .

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An investigation by Carolina Public Press also revealed that Cherokee County DSS conducted a massive shredding operation to destroy files in dozens of totes last summer. It is unknown whether the files included child welfare documents, which state officials and judges had told them to preserve.

During a regular meeting with Cherokee County DSS workers in October 2017, state Department of Health and Human Services employees noted alarming practices by Cherokee staff, including falsified contact reports. Those contact reports document visits by social workers, and the agency is then reimbursed for some of the cost by the federal government.

A short while later, DHHS discovered Cherokee County’s practice of using CVAs — unrelated to the misspent federal funds, but which was deeply troubling and for which county officials are now under criminal investigation.

DHHS said it discovered Cherokee County was using CVAs two months after that meeting, in December 2017. An agency spokeswoman told CPP this week that DHHS considers the two issues to be unrelated.

In March 2018, the state made the unprecedented move to take over Cherokee County’s child welfare operations. During the seven months DHHS occupied the office, it audited child welfare files, including those related to federally funded foster care and adoption services.

As the state was managing day-to-day operations in Cherokee County, the DSS board, which had suspended Palmer pending an investigation, was getting regular updates from its acting attorney, David Moore.

Moore said in a closed meeting that he thought Palmer lied on the stand when she testified about when she first learned of the custody and visitation agreements.

In May 2018, Moore estimated the cost to the county of Palmer’s lack of departmental oversight at “tens of thousands of dollars.” At the time, the precise dollar figure was still being calculated, emails among DHHS staffers show.

When contacted Tuesday afternoon, Palmer’s attorney, Hart Miles, said to his knowledge she has fully cooperated with the SBI’s requests for information and intends to continue cooperating. Miles is with Raleigh-based firm Cheshire Parker Schneider.

Expanded investigation?

It’s not clear whether the SBI’s investigation is looking more deeply at issues that have arisen from CPP’s reporting on the situation, including the file shredding in 2018 and the issues identified when DHHS conducted an on-site review in October 2017.

While each of the state’s 100 counties is responsible for day-to-day child welfare operations, DHHS largely has a monitoring role. Generally, DHHS workers meet with county officials every six months for an on-site review to ensure county workers are following state and federal policies.

These regular state reviews began in 2015, the state said. Though DHHS monitors for problems, it remains up to the counties and their leaders to fix the problems and return to compliance.

The DHHS visit to Cherokee County in October 2017 was one of these regular meetings.

During that meeting, notes show, state workers were concerned that Cherokee County social workers were falsifying foster care records in late 2017 and had serious concerns about the unusual speed by which parental rights were terminated.

“It is hard to believe with the lack of engagement and documentation that TPRs (termination of parental rights) are even granted,” the meeting notes say.

It is DHHS policy to contact the department’s director when there’s a concern about child welfare practices, so that’s what happened in October 2017 when the department spoke with then-director Cindy Palmer, a spokeswoman said via email.

“This protocol allows the director to take appropriate action to investigate the issue and determine whether any personnel actions are warranted,” DHHS said in its recent message to CPP. Actions can include additional training to correct problems a worker might have in adhering to state or federal policies.

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A DHHS spokeswoman did not say whether the department notified any law enforcement or federal agency. Despite responding to other questions from CPP, the agency failed to acknowledge repeated requests to speak with DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen about the agency’s handling of the problems in Cherokee County.

District Attorney Welch told CPP last month that the actions described in the October 2017 DHHS notes could be felonies, and she was not aware of them until CPP asked her.

“These are identical and they are falsifying these records,” the DHHS notes from the exit conference say. “These records are tied into funding.”


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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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