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

As part of a deal with prosecutors, a former child welfare supervisor who oversaw multiple child removals using a document later deemed unlawful has pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors related to his role.

Last year, a Cherokee County grand jury indicted three current and former Department of Social Services employees, including David Hughes, a former Child Protective Unit supervisor at Cherokee County DSS, on more than three dozen felony and misdemeanor charges. Hughes and his colleagues separated families using what they called a Custody and Visitation Agreement. While it looked like a legal document, two judges ruled the CVA did not carry the force of law and said the child separations were unlawful.

In exchange for truthful testimony “in any proceeding,” the state dropped 10 felony obstruction-of-justice charges against Hughes.

David Hughes, a former Cherokee County Department of Social Services supervisor, was indicted and booked in May 2020 on multiple charges. Photo courtesy of Cherokee County

Hughes pleaded guilty to contributing to the delinquency of a minor and willfully failing to discharge duties, but the sentencing is unlikely to occur as long as Hughes testifies. The plea transcript also says the state will postpone sentencing Hughes. 

Along with Hughes, the grand jury indicted former Cherokee County DSS Director Cindy Palmer, who is currently the DSS business officer. She faces two felony obstruction-of-justice charges, two misdemeanor charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a misdemeanor charge of willful failure to discharge duties and a felony perjury charge.

The grand jury also indicted former DSS attorney Scott Lindsay on 20 felony obstruction-of-justice charges, two misdemeanor charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and one misdemeanor charge of willful failure to discharge duties.

Neither Hughes nor his lawyer responded to requests for comment about his plea arrangement. Hughes testified in May during a four-day federal civil trial in Asheville about his role in using the CVAs.

Using invalid documents on ‘stuck cases’

Typically, parents and children are both represented by their own counsel, and a judge must sign off on any permanent custody arrangements. But that didn’t happen in CVA cases. Instead, social workers used the documents to close child welfare cases quickly without judicial oversight. 

DSS workers testified in May that they used CVAs to close “stuck cases,” in which they had difficulty building up enough evidence for a judge to agree to remove a child from what the social worker thought was a dangerous situation.

“It may not have been enough for a petition,” Hughes testified in May at a federal trial, “yet we were concerned about returning the children back to the home for safety reasons.”

Petitions were not filed because “we felt like it was probably not a strong enough case to take to court,” Hughes testified.

Hughes started working for Cherokee County DSS in 2011 and was promoted to supervisor in 2016. Hughes testified that after a state audit in 2016, caseworkers were told, “We needed to get our cases turned over more quickly.”

Palmer became the department’s permanent director in March 2016.

Around that time, Hughes testified, children could remain in a kinship placement — placed away from their parents but with a relative — only for a limited time.

A state audit from 2016 said 46% of Cherokee County’s foster children had been in care for more than a year

In September 2016, the use of CVAs increased, according to Hughes’ testimony. October was always a busy month with Cherokee County DSS, he said, largely because school had come back into session.

“When you’re looking at a situation and you’ve got a short work staff and you need to get your cases closed quicker, this was a good alternative,” Hughes said of the CVAs.

The process was a way to save money, Hughes testified, because otherwise the department would have to continue to provide services for the children and families.

Lindsay’s and Palmer’s next scheduled court dates are in August.

The issue may also be under a federal investigation as well. Each day of the four-day civil trial, an attorney with the U.S. attorney’s office was present. District Attorney Ashley Welch told Carolina Public Press in 2019 she met with the U.S. attorney’s office after CPP asked about her mileage statements.

Lawyers for the children and parents are also lining up civil suits related to CVA use by Cherokee DSS workers. A lawyer representing the county said workers oversaw 30 CVAs since 2008.

Kate Martin

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

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  1. Given the state of Child Welfare in this country, I applaud DSS professionals who care more about children’s safety than about arbitrary implementation of archaic rules.

    1. Our legal system is not perfect. It needs a lot of improvement. But it is better than letting individuals decide what is best for others without any oversight.