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

Every day, our journalism dismantles barriers and shines a light on the critical overlooked and under-reported issues important to all North Carolinians.

Last week, Heaven Cordell sat on a new futon in her new apartment in Central Florida, among boxes of clothes and kitchen implements. A few months ago, when she moved away from the Western North Carolina family she lived with for years, she closed a painful chapter in her life.

The 20-year-old from Murphy is one of dozens of people unlawfully separated from their families as children by Cherokee County’s Department of Social Services. Taken from her father and sister after her mother died, Cordell lived in a home where she says she was not allowed to see her sister.

Cherokee County’s insurer has agreed to its first settlement in a lawsuit brought by one of the children separated from family members as a result of one of Cherokee County’s Custody and Visitation Agreements, or CVAs, which the courts have repeatedly said were illegal. The parties settled last week for $450,000.

“I’m happy it’s settled,” Cordell said from Florida, where she currently works as a substitute teacher.

A judge first ruled CVAs unlawful in 2018. Earlier this year, Brian Hogan and his daughter won a $4.6 million federal jury award in their lawsuit over a similar separation. The jury said Cherokee County and two of its employees violated their constitutional rights by having an officewide practice that went against law and policy.

The Hogan case was the first of many lawsuits winding its way through the federal civil courts, all with substantially similar circumstances.

Heaven Cordell and her sister Molly had been snared in a scheme by Cherokee County DSS to separate children and parents without judicial oversight to avoid spending county money, according to testimony by former DSS supervisor David Hughes in May.

“These alternative removal mechanisms were designed and used to avoid in-court time, judicial oversight and reduce cost to Cherokee County’s DSS budget,” Cordell’s federal lawsuit filed last year states.

Former DSS Director Cindy Palmer, and former county and DSS attorney Scott Lindsay, along with the Cherokee County DSS, are named in lawsuits for dozens of children swept up in the scheme. 

The settlement agreement in Cordell’s case includes a provision whereby Cherokee County and the other defendants do not admit to any wrongdoing. While accepting the settlement, Cordell expressed disappointment with that provision.

“No, that’s ridiculous,” Cordell fumed last week. “I think they should own up to what they did. They know what they did. They know it was wrong. They literally made an illegal document.”

More than a dozen additional cases are lined up in federal court, including a separate case involving Molly Cordell, Heaven’s sister, set for trial in January.

“All of these cases stand on their own merits,” said David Wijewickrama, one of Heaven Cordell’s attorneys. The parents and children all have unique stories, he said, but all of these cases have one thing in common: that Cherokee County, acting on behalf of the state and federal governments, violated these families’ constitutional rights.

“The reality of it is, those violations caused damage,” Wijewickrama said. “The settlement of this case is an acknowledgment of that damage. It may not acknowledge legal, lawful liability. You don’t pay $450,000 to somebody when you didn’t do something wrong to them.”

Separated unlawfully

When she was 14, Cordell’s mother died of a bacterial infection. Her mother’s death upended Heaven’s and her sister’s worlds. Eventually, Cherokee County DSS placed her with a local family. At first, Cordell was excited because she said she’d be living with a friend of a friend.

“They were like ‘It’s going to be like a big sleepover,’” Cordell said. “We were all three friends, all 14-year-old girls. It sounded amazing.”

Cherokee County DSS workers had the host family and her father sign paperwork that DSS said transferred permanent custody of Heaven Cordell away from her father to the new family in early 2016 and followed up with a signed CVA in 2017, court records show.

“I understand the child(ren) are not in foster care; DSS does not have custody of the child(ren),” a document signed in February 2016 states.

Normally, a judge would rule on whether to change custody or to terminate parental rights in DSS court, where the child, the parents and DSS are all represented by attorneys.

Because Cordell was placed with a family “outside the lawful process of a dispositional hearing in DSS court by means of the unlawful CVA,” DSS did not provide any medical care or other services she would otherwise have been entitled to receive.

“Heaven was directly harmed by defendants’ unlawful placement of her by losing medical care, education and other beneficial services to which she would have been lawfully entitled,” the lawsuit states.

When living with her host family, Cordell tried to see a therapist on her own but did not go again because the therapist required her host family’s signatures. She also visited the doctor once on her own before she turned 18, but she had to navigate how to renew Medicaid on her own.

“I had no idea what to do,” she said last week. “The doctors never turned me away when I showed them my Medicaid card.”

Her host family did not take her older sister, Molly. Heaven Cordell said she lived a comparatively charmed life. The family who hosted her was well-off, and Cordell was even elected homecoming queen by her peers.

But she said she recalls only seeing her sister a handful of times from the time she was 14 until she turned 18.

“They wouldn’t let me talk to her hardly ever,” Cordell said. “They told me no, I was not to be around her. We didn’t get to see each other a lot. We snuck around, and I lied to them to see her.”

The lawsuit alleged that DSS separated Cordell “from her sister who was the only family that knew and loved her” and that she “suffered severe emotional trauma, pain and suffering.”

A pattern of cases

Cordell’s case was part of a larger problem at Cherokee County DSS. Lindsay, the former DSS attorney, said he received a copy of a CVA from another attorney at a training in 2007 or 2010. The county’s civil attorney in the ongoing litigation, Sean Perrin, has said the agency separated dozens of children from parents starting in 2008.

However, the Cordell lawsuit extends that time and expands the type of documents it says Cherokee County used to separate families without judicial oversight. In addition to CVAs, the lawsuit says workers used powers of attorney, family safety agreements, safety plans and “substantially similar agreements” in addition to CVAs as far back as 1999 to avoid court oversight.

As the State Bureau of Investigation was actively investigating what happened, Palmer resigned as DSS director and accepted a job in a financial role in the same office, where she continues to work, even after a grand jury indicted her on multiple felonies and misdemeanors related to the CVAs.

Cherokee County in the past has said the state examined its DSS files as part of a regular review process. However, Cordell’s lawsuit says the CVA process was not discussed with state officials, and documents were kept hidden from the state.

Cordell seemed incredulous that Palmer was still employed there.

“How is she allowed to work there when she’s done that to people?” she asked. “I think they did a lot of people dirty. I think they did a lot of people wrong.”

Palmer kept her job because, after she was charged, an internal investigation that examined her conduct in her new role as business officer, not her former role as director, found she had done nothing wrong.

Palmer’s next court hearing for her criminal charges is later this month. When asked what ought to happen to her, Cordell seemed conflicted.

“Honestly, I don’t even think she should go to jail,” Cordell said. “I think she should get everything taken away from her and live like we live. They should put her in a home like that and treat her like that.” 

She paused for a moment, then added, “It’s kind of hard to say, because I have a very big heart, and if they were to put her in jail, it’d probably upset me.”

Cordell, who has an associate degree in applied science and cosmetology, is now trying to forge her own path hundreds of miles away from the community she once called home.

“I really believe she wasn’t intending on hurting people,” Cordell said of Palmer. “She was making her life easier, but she didn’t realize the damage she was doing to other people.”

Palmer is married to the elected Cherokee County sheriff, Derrick Palmer. He also served as pastor at Vengeance Creek Baptist Church in Marble.

“These people hold themselves out as God-fearing Christian leaders of the community,” Wijewickrama said. “I have yet to see them display any Christlike virtue and I have yet to see them lead.”

As for the social workers complicit in the scheme, Cordell said they must not have cared about the children they hurt and found it easy to dismiss the harm they caused.

“They just think that we’re liars and that it doesn’t matter because it’s not their life,” she said. 

“It’s not fair because so many kids went through so much heartache and depression and could have even taken their own lives over something like this.

“It’s very, very sad, what they did, and they have no remorse. They can’t even say they did wrong? That just makes me mad.”

Kate Martin

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