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MURPHY — Three current and former Cherokee County Department of Social Services employees indicted with more than three dozen felony and misdemeanor charges among them were booked into the Cherokee County Detention Center on Monday and Tuesday.
All are now free on an unsecured bond. Among them are Cindy Palmer, former DSS director and the wife of Cherokee County Sheriff Derrick Palmer; former Child Protective Unit supervisor David Hughes; and former DSS attorney Scott Lindsay.
Palmer and Hughes were booked within minutes of each other at the detention center Monday and released on $8,000 and $12,500 unsecured bonds, respectively, promising to show up for a court date in early August. Lindsay was booked Tuesday and released on $25,000 unsecured bond.
The charges included dozens of felonies and misdemeanors related to a yearslong Cherokee County DSS practice that separated children from parents without the oversight of a judge.
Superior Court Judge William Coward accepted a manila envelope from the Cherokee County deputy assigned as the grand jury officer shortly after 12:30 p.m. Monday in a mostly empty courtroom due to pandemic precautions.
Noting that the envelope was marked “Grand Jury 5/18/20,” the judge opened and examined its contents. He found 45 true bills of indictment. An assistant district attorney had earlier stated that 45 were being presented to the grand jury. Of those, 41 were related to the DSS actions.
Judge Coward read each silently, skimmed each document and handed it off to a clerk. When he had finished them, he declared that all had been properly signed, with all appropriate boxes checked. He thanked two members of the grand jury who were present for their service and then adjourned.
The judge did not say what was in the indictments. But whispers of what was at stake Monday were widespread throughout the courthouse. Officially, however, nothing was certain until the clerk’s office could enter the indictments into the record. About 4 p.m. Monday, Carolina Public Press received copies confirming the news.
Grand jurors had agreed to indict three current and former employees of the Cherokee County Department of Social Services on all 41 charges. The N.C. attorney general’s office is handling the prosecution of the three defendants. The indictments come after more than two years of investigations by state and potentially federal authorities. They also do not cover all of the allegations of misconduct, meaning more charges could surface in the future.
But they stand to shake up Cherokee County because of who was indicted and why, as well as who had backed them despite ongoing criminal investigations.
The indictments may also have important implications for the accountability of social services agencies across North Carolina, as well as the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, which intervened in Cherokee County while the investigation was underway.
The indicted parties
Among those indicted was Cindy Palmer, the former director of the Cherokee County Department of Social Services. Her charges include felony obstruction of justice and perjury for lying to a judge two years ago.
In 2018, as an investigation of the unlawful child custody practices began, Palmer faced suspension. She then resigned from her position as director but was immediately rehired as the DSS business officer.
Two felony obstruction of justice charges against Palmer are for allowing social workers to use so-called custody and visitation agreements during the calendar years of 2016 and 2017.
“The use of these agreements effectively avoided judicial oversight into the activities of Cherokee County DSS and subverted the statutory process for determining abuse and neglect of children, and determining custody and parental rights,” the indictment says.
“This offense was done in secrecy and with malice; with deceit and intent to defraud; was infamous; and was done in violation of the common law, and against the peace and dignity of the state.”
Another felony charge says Palmer committed perjury during a February 2018 emergency custody hearing before District Court Judge Tessa Sellers.
At the hearing, attorney Ron Moore, asked Palmer to tell him about Cherokee DSS’ use of the documents.
“More specifically? I’m not sure what you’re asking,” Palmer said.
“When was the first time you ever heard of one?” Moore asked.
“The first time I ever recall hearing of one was Dec. 6, 2017, when I received a call from Mr. Lindsay about a similar agreement,” Palmer replied.
The indictment says she committed perjury in saying this, “knowing the statement, which is material, to be false.”
Later, Moore asked, “So you didn’t know anything about any CVAs prior to December?”
“Not that I recall, no,” Palmer said.
However, the indictment holds Palmer responsible for CVAs as far back as the beginning of 2016. Palmer became interim director for Cherokee DSS in August 2015, a position that became permanent the following year.
In her defense, her attorney at Cheshire Parker Schneider in Raleigh said the agreements happened years before she became the director.
“Cindy relied on the department’s longtime lawyer, whom she believed was following the law with regard to these agreements,” wrote attorney Hart Miles, with the firm.
“She adamantly denies ever acting with any sort of criminal intent. And she is confident that those in the community that know her understand that she is a dedicated public servant who has been wrongfully targeted in this investigation.”
State and federal policies require child welfare workers to receive training throughout their careers. Palmer herself had attended a training in 2016 on proper procedures for custody removals, DSS attorney David Moore told the DSS board in a closed session.
David Moore told the board during that closed session “that training in 2016 had covered the appropriate department procedures that should have been followed regarding custody removals,” according to closed-session minutes. “The 2016 training was clear and direct and taught procedures and rules regarding maintaining parental rights.”
Asked by CPP last year whether this meant Palmer should have known better, David Moore said, “Everybody should have known better.”
During that same court hearing, former DSS attorney Scott Lindsay said the department started using CVAs around July 1, 2014, and may have continued through late 2017. He advised the department for well over a decade.
Attorney Ron Moore, who is one of the lawyers representing families and was formerly the district attorney in Buncombe County, asked Lindsay about the origin of the CVAs. Lindsay said he got a copy at a class for attorneys called continuing legal education, or CLE, in 2007 or 2010.
“I just got a form or a copy from another attorney, and we started using that — or I started using that,” Lindsay said. At some point, he said either he gave the form or workers took it and started to use it, and sent the form to him with names and dates already filled in.
Records from the N.C. Bar Association show Lindsay attended two social services attorney conferences, one in 2007 and another in 2010, at the UNC School of Government. The bar association did not have records of which classes he attended.
The first CVA listed in any of the indictments is dated Oct. 15, 2014. They continue through Oct. 30, 2017. Of those CVAs, Lindsay is charged with 20 felony counts of obstruction of justice, two misdemeanor counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and one count of willful failure to discharge duties.
Lindsay’s attorney, Jerry Townson, said Tuesday he could not comment at this time because he has not read the indictment. The N.C. Bar Association also would not comment on the case, other than to say it was aware of the indictment.
“Generally, when a lawyer is charged with a crime showing professional unfitness, the state bar will wait until the criminal charge is resolved to pursue professional discipline,” said Katherine Jean, counsel for the state bar.
The third person charged is Hughes, a former Child Protective Unit supervisor.
Hughes testified in 2018 that he was aware of around two dozen CVAs that he or other workers had executed in the seven years he worked there. When parents signed the document, DSS closed the case, Hughes said.
He said this means DSS did not check up on children or provide other support to families and children that are usually required under various state and federal policies. Hughes resigned from the department in April 2018.
Of the 20 CVAs mentioned in the indictments, Hughes is charged with felony obstruction of justice for 10 of them, from 2014 through late 2017. He also faces one count of misdemeanor contributing to the delinquency of a minor and one misdemeanor count of willful failure to discharge duties.
Attempts to reach Hughes were unsuccessful.
Changes in Cherokee County?
Until Monday’s indictment, Palmer had continued at her business officer job at DSS. That had changed by Monday afternoon, as word of the grand jurors’ actions became known. She is now on paid “investigatory leave” for 30 days, according to the county attorney.
“Cherokee County is conducting an investigation to determine Mrs. Palmer’s continued employment with Cherokee County DSS as business officer,” County Attorney Darryl Brown said in a statement late Monday. Brown also represents Derrick Palmer in his capacity as Cherokee County sheriff.
Brown said he, in his capacity as county attorney, will be conducting the investigation and will report the findings to DSS Director Amanda Tanner McGee. Both McGee and County Manager Randy Wiggins will decide on Palmer’s continued employment, Brown said.
“An indictment only finds ‘probable cause.’ This is an extremely low standard of evidence and is certainly not enough evidence in and of itself to base disciplinary action on,” Brown wrote to CPP.
After The Associated Press published a story based on the 2018 court hearing, the state Department of Health and Human Services took over operations of the DSS child welfare office, which would continue for several months.
Although DHHS had taken control of child protective services at DSS at the time and knew Palmer was under criminal investigation, public records show the state agency did not object to Palmer being given a different position with substantial responsibility.
In a series of investigative reports in 2019, CPP pointed to evidence that an unprecedented and massive number of documents at DSS were shredded at precisely the time she took on the new position. If material relevant to the State Bureau of Investigation probe of Palmer and others were destroyed, it could constitute a separate case of obstruction of justice.
None of the indictments handed up Monday bear on conduct from that time period, however.
Already in the courts
Monday’s indictments are not the first time that the courts have taken a look at the unusual child custody practices of Cherokee County DSS. But unlike the previous proceedings in civil court, the indictments move the action into criminal court.
Earlier rulings voided the CVAs. A lawsuit from the parents is now before the federal courts.
Social workers from Cherokee County DSS told parents and other caregivers that unless they signed the document, their children would be placed in a foster home far away, according to a federal lawsuit.
In fact, the documents were an illegal violation of parents’ constitutional rights, and “the product of both actual and constructive fraud on behalf of the Cherokee County Department of Social Services, its agents and employees and Attorney Scott Lindsay and Director Cindy Palmer,” District Court Judge Sellers ruled in 2018.
DSS workers told parents the documents carried the force of law and that they would have to go to court to regain custody, according to a federal lawsuit filed in 2018.
Parents have said they resisted signing the documents. Tienda Rose Phillips told CPP last year that she thought the documents were “sketchy.”
“But when you have someone who you think is over you and is threatening foster care, who you know can take your kid, you kind of do what they say,” Phillips said. “You kind of feel you have no choice.”
Only later did an attorney counsel her that the statements had been a ruse to get her to sign the documents, which a DSS official told her granted custody of her young son to her mother for an out-of-state trip.
By then, “my son had already come home. The troubles and the tears and stuff threatening to put my child in a foster care home was all fake,” Phillips said last year. She is among several parents who have sued Cherokee County, its DSS office and the state of North Carolina.
The State Bureau of Investigation delivered its nearly three-year investigation to Ashley Hornsby Welch, the district attorney for the state’s seven westernmost counties, in early 2019. After learning Cindy Palmer was a primary target of the agency’s work, she recused her office from the case and asked the state attorney general’s office to review the SBI’s files.
Sheriff’s administration also under scrutiny
The administration of Palmer’s husband, Sheriff Derrick Palmer, has been under several SBI investigations during his tenure, including for the death of jail inmate Joshua Shane Long and allegations of fights between inmates encouraged by jail deputies — both of which were the subject of an SBI investigation for more than a year.
Throughout the ordeal, Sheriff Palmer has made regular appearances on a local radio show. At times, he said, the trials and tribulations he and his wife have endured have upset him. But Palmer, who is also a Baptist minister, said he took solace in his faith.
“God never promised to keep bad things from happening to us, He never did,” Palmer said last year, citing Isaiah 43:2, “When thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.”
“Even though there’s enemies out there, even though there’s people trying to tear you down,” the sheriff said, “even though there’s things being printed about you and said about you and you can’t even say anything on the radio without someone trying to make an issue of it, trying to make a story about it and those kind of things, one thing that I do claim and I do realize is — when you are in the midst of the fire, God will be in the fire with you.”
On Monday, Palmer released a statement to WKRK, a local radio station where he often speaks on Friday mornings.
“We are overwhelmed with the love and support from our family, friends and community. Anyone who knows her, knows she does not have a malicious bone in her body, and I stand in support of her with my entire being,” Derrick Palmer’s statement said. “We don’t know why we have to go through these type (of) things, but such is life.”
Indictments due to those who ‘didn’t give up’
David Wijewickrama, one of the attorneys for the families in the federal lawsuit, said the persistence of several parties resulted in Monday’s indictments.
“Our justice system is broken, and the folks that suffer the most are the children,” Wijewickrama said.
“On behalf of the affected parents, we are grateful to Ashley (Hornsby) Welch for not giving up on this case, for the (attorney general’s) special prosecution unit for actually prosecuting this case, and the (State Bureau of Investigation) that actually didn’t give up on it either.”
He also thanked the role of the press in keeping society informed.
“I think that Carolina Public Press is 100% responsible for keeping the interest of the general public alive to bring us to these indictments today,” Wijewickrama said Monday.
“As local newspapers go under and as local media disappears and vanishes, there will be more public corruption. There will be more ignorance and there will be more tragedy visited upon the most needy parts of our society.”