For the past three years, Cherokee County’s Department of Social Services has asked six nearby counties’ DSS offices to help shoulder a substantial number of cases that its director says are conflicts of interest due to ongoing or potential litigation.
Now, two of those counties — Clay and Macon — will no longer take Cherokee County’s cases related to parents who signed Custody and Visitation Agreements, which the courts have decreed unlawful.
“Clay County does not have the human resources or financial resources to continue to assist Cherokee County with the CVA conflict cases for an indeterminate amount of time,” the letter from Clay County Commission Chairman Rob Peck read.
The letter says Clay County helped with 15 CVA conflict cases starting in May 2018 — right after the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services took over Cherokee County’s Child Welfare Division.
From at least 2008 to late 2017, Cherokee County’s social workers used CVAs to quickly close at least 30 child welfare cases. Closed cases meant fewer expenses for the county, social workers testified at a federal civil trial in May.
The legal-appearing documents, along with perceived threats to place children in far-flung areas, enabled social workers to coerce parents to sign away their parental rights without ever involving a judge or having attorneys to represent the best interests of the parents and children, as required under North Carolina law.
After parents signed the CVAs and children were removed, social workers didn’t check on the children to see how they fared, social workers testified.
Department officials say they have since ended the practice, but the reverberations from the past use of CVAs continue.
Cherokee County DSS Director Amanda McGee, who came to Cherokee from Rutherford County in late 2018, said Cherokee DSS’ attorney for its civil litigation, Sean Perrin, told her it was a conflict of interest for DSS to work cases involving the parents who signed a CVA or children who were removed because of one.
Perrin did not respond to a request for comment prior to publication of this article.
Several parents and children have sued Cherokee County over the department’s practices.
In the only CVA lawsuit to be tried in court so far, a federal jury awarded one father and daughter $4.6 million after a four-day civil trial in May. Several other lawsuits are in various stages in federal court.
The statute of limitations to sue has run out for additional parents, who had three years to sue, McGee said. However, regardless of how much time has elapsed, children affected by CVAs have until at least their 21st birthday to file lawsuits against Cherokee County. Cherokee County social workers will not work those cases due to the conflict of interest, McGee said.
“I don’t think the volume of (conflict cases) is going to be what it was” because the statute of limitations has run out for parents, McGee said.
Former Director Cindy Palmer, who oversaw workers who used the CVAs, continues to work as Cherokee County’s business officer. She’s been indicted for several felonies and misdemeanors related to her leadership during that time. Her signature is on many of the invoices from counties that staff the CVA conflict cases.
Palmer has never refused to pay a county’s invoice submitted to the department for reimbursement related to the CVA cases, McGee said. Public records indicate reimbursements to Clay, Macon and Swain DSS offices have totaled more than $40,000 since 2018. Reimbursements to Graham, Jackson and Haywood were not available in time for publication.
McGee said the state DHHS also bears some responsibility for sending these cases to other counties, as the state agency said Cherokee County social workers should not staff cases where CVAs were involved.
In the spring of 2018, DHHS took over Cherokee County’s Child Welfare Division. For CVA-affected families residing in Cherokee County, DHHS hired a contract social worker “to eliminate a conflict of interest,” a March 2018 document says.
McGee called the situation “a bind.”
“When DHHS left here, they thought they had an agreement where they thought the counties were going to work together,” McGee said.
When the agency first assumed authority in Cherokee County, department officials decided “any case that involved a family with a CVA would be a conflict of interest for Cherokee County. Upon authority being returned back to the county, determinations for all (conflict of interest) cases became the responsibility of the county director,” according to DHHS spokeswoman Kelly Haight.
It costs more than money for the surrounding six counties to staff these cases, David Moore, DSS attorney for Clay and Macon counties, said.
Cherokee County is the westernmost county in North Carolina and borders Tennessee and Georgia. In good weather, it can take 45 minutes to reach Hiawassee Dam, near the Tennessee border from Clay County, or 90 minutes from Macon County.
“It’s not just a matter of being reimbursed for that time,” Moore said. “That worker is no longer available to Clay County or Macon County or Haywood County or Jackson County to do their own work and work on their own county’s problems.”
When people call DSS to report concerns, social workers have to screen those reports to see whether an immediate response is required or if they have a couple of days to check on that child. Even the least complex cases can take 30 days to close, Moore said.
Collectively, the seven westernmost county DSS directors call themselves the “Smoky Seven,” after the verdant rolling Appalachian geography their counties call home. McGee said even with the area’s natural beauty, it’s challenging to recruit qualified child welfare workers to the area.
“The issue for Cherokee County is that … we have depleted all of the people that live in this county (who) have a degree and are interested in this work,” McGee said.
McGee has offered to hire a part-time worker and pay for other expenses, but Moore said this also falls short because there is nobody to employ.
“Every department in the Smoky Seven is down workers,” Moore said.
McGee said her office is trying to fill six open positions and currently has 18 employees.
Update: This story has been updated to reflect comment received from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services on Thursday afternoon.