The Cherokee County Department of Social Services building in Murphy. [Frank Taylor/The Carolina Public Press]

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Darryl Brown, the county attorney in Cherokee County, says he is conducting an investigation into whether Cindy Palmer, former head of the county’s Department of Social Services, should keep her current job as DSS business officer.

Brown’s is the latest probe into Palmer’s conduct while she ran the DSS. A Cherokee County grand jury indicted Palmer on several felony and misdemeanor counts for crimes that the N.C. Attorney General’s Office said she committed. She also faces a charge of felony perjury for allegedly lying to a judge two years ago for her role in separating children from their families without getting a judge’s approval.

The charges are the culmination of nearly two years of investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation, which ultimately netted Palmer’s indictments and those of two other former DSS employees, encompassing more than three dozen felony and misdemeanor charges.

The charges stem from the workers’ coercive practice of using a so-called Custody and Visitation Agreement, or CVA, to separate children from families without judicial oversight.

Palmer’s attorney, Hart Miles, has said the agreements were in place years before she became director and she kept using them on the advice of then-DSS attorney Scott Lindsay, one of the others facing charges.

The SBI investigation followed scrutiny of Cherokee County DSS under Palmer by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and a court ruling describing the CVAs as fraudulent and unlawful.

While the previous investigations have looked at operations of DSS, questions of criminal behavior and demands for civil damages, Brown’s investigation focuses on her future as an employee of Cherokee County.

Brown is also much closer to Palmer than other investigators. In addition to serving as county attorney, Brown is separately employed as Sheriff’s Office attorney. Sheriff Derrick Palmer is Cindy Palmer’s husband.

Asked about Cindy Palmer’s future after the investigation, Brown told Carolina Public Press that Palmer’s employment status is protected by state statute. DSS Director Amanda McGee placed Palmer on 30-day investigative leave on May 18. The leave expires Wednesday unless extended further.

“I, in my capacity as county attorney, am conducting the investigation and will report to DSS Director Amanda McGee and County Manager Randy Wiggins as to the evidence that I am able to find,” Brown wrote to CPP last month.

With only a month in Palmer’s paid leave, Brown said, “I will be reaching out to the Attorney General’s Office to ask for the report from the SBI regarding the allegations in the indictments.”

When reached last month, attorney general spokeswoman Laura Brewer said the file is not a public record. “As a result, we will not be able to provide the file to anyone.”

SBI spokeswoman Anjanette Grube said the SBI releases files only after criminal cases have been disposed of. “If he gets a court order, we will comply with the order,” she said.

Brown said he would not comment further on his pending investigation. But on Monday he said his investigation was ongoing.

The SBI has also conducted several investigations into Sheriff Palmer’s administration, including for the 2018 death of jail inmate Joshua Shane Long and allegations of fights between inmates encouraged by jail deputies.

Cindy Palmer’s booking photo following her indictment on multiple charges related to her conduct as head of the county’s Department of Social Services through 2018. Photo courtesy of Cherokee County

Not the first investigation

This is not the first time Palmer has awaited the judgment of others. It also may not be the last, as Miles said his client intends to take the criminal case to trial before a jury of her peers.

Under her watch, DSS workers separated children from their families without the oversight of a judge using a document called a Custody and Visitation Agreement.

After the state discovered those actions in late 2017, the first judgment of Cindy Palmer came from District Court Judge Tessa Sellers, who found in 2018: “The CVA is 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.”

An assessment by the state Department of Health and Human Services in 2018, determined she was an ineffective manager whose leadership “over child welfare services is at best described as inactive.”

When Palmer was on investigative leave for two months in 2018 after DHHS’ assessment, the county hired attorney David Moore, who told the DSS board in a closed session in April 2018 “that Ms. Palmer may have lied under oath about her knowledge regarding the CVAs. … Because Ms. Palmer was the director of DSS, a lack of oversight could mean felony charges for her.”

Despite the judge’s ruling, despite the state’s findings excoriating her lack of leadership and in the face of an attorney’s pronouncement that she likely committed perjury, the county allowed Palmer to resign as director and take a lower-paid but still influential position at DSS, where she remains on the payroll until this day.

Last month, a grand jury indicted her and two others for their role in orchestrating the CVAs. A monthslong State Bureau of Investigation probe found evidence of child welfare workers separating 20 families using CVAs. Attorneys representing the families in a separate civil suit say there are likely far more.

Social workers told families the documents carried the weight of law. In fact, they did not. A judge invalidated all such agreements in early 2018, and last month three current and former workers, Palmer among them, were indicted on multiple charges of obstruction of justice, contributing to the delinquency of a minor and willful failure to discharge duties. All relate to 20 separate cases where DSS workers used CVAs, some involving multiple children.

Palmer faces a separate felony perjury count on charges of lying to a judge in 2018.

Parallel to this is a civil suit, filed in federal court last year. Parents have broad authority granted by the U.S. Constitution in how they raise their children, and the county deprived parents of that right, among other serious issues, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit seeks damages from named plaintiffs including Cherokee County, Cherokee County DSS, Scott Lindsay and Cindy Palmer.

Attorney David Wijewickrama represents parents in that lawsuit. He said last month he was “speechless” that Palmer’s employment even remained in question.

“Have they not been investigating this for the last two years?” Wijewickrama said. “At least a grand jury in Cherokee County thinks there is some merit to these claims.

Sheriff: ‘Seems like evil’s winning’

Sheriff Derrick Palmer also serves as a pastor at Vengeance Creek Baptist Church in Murphy. He appears regularly on WKRK, a Christian radio station, to talk about the community and his office.

Last month, Palmer said he and his wife have been “overwhelmed by support” from the community.

“Sometimes we don’t understand what the path of God is,” Palmer said. “… Sometimes it seems unfair. Sometimes it seems ridiculous. Sometimes it seems like you are a target. Sometimes it seems like evil’s winning.”

He said it’s hard to give thanks when bad things happen.

“No matter what happens, no matter what life’s plan, guess what, I am not giving up,” Palmer said. “I’m not giving in. I’m not quitting. I’m not walking away. I am not doing these things. I’m going to follow God to the best of my ability, and so is my wife.”

Kate Martin

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

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