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

Cindy Palmer, who led the Cherokee County Department of Social Services for several years as workers unlawfully separated parents and children, has resigned from DSS where she had remained employed in a financial role despite felony indictments.

Palmer did not return messages seeking comment.

Under her watch, the department rapidly accelerated family separations without judicial authority. Sometimes social workers used a Custody and Visitation Agreement, a document made to look official that bamboozled dozens of parents into believing they had lost legal custody of their children.

In reality, social workers at times coerced parents into signing the document, saying their children would be placed in foster homes far away if the documents were not signed. 

For Palmer’s role in the yearslong scheme, a grand jury indicted her with multiple felonies and misdemeanors. Two other former workers were also indicted with dozens more crimes.

The unlawful child removals, which a judge called ‘actual and constructive fraud’ in 2018, came to light in late 2017. 

Brian Hogan approached attorney Melissa Jackson in a Cherokee County grocery store asking for help to get his daughter back. He and the teenage child had by that time been separated for more than a year, but Hogan showed Jackson a judge’s order from before that, which said he had primary custody.

The document that said he didn’t have custody was different. It was more recent. No social worker presented evidence in court that his daughter was abused, neglected or dependent. It didn’t have a judge’s signature. It had not been discussed in court.

Neither Hogan nor his daughter had legal representation — which the law requires when the government tries to terminate parental rights. The Custody and Visitation Agreement said Hogan’s grandfather had custody of the girl until she turned 18.

Instead, Hogan, who cannot read, signed the CVA at the DSS office in Murphy. For more than a year after that he rarely saw his daughter.

Parents generally have wide latitude in how to parent their children without government interference. Removing a child from a parent for good is supposed to take a lot of evidence and hearings.

So Hogan sued Cherokee County, Palmer and Lindsay in federal court.

Testimony at the civil trial in May 2021 laid bare a DSS office in dysfunction. Cherokee County’s comparatively underpaid social workers sought jobs in neighboring counties that paid better, leaving Cherokee DSS with high turnover, former social work supervisor David Hughes testified.

As a result, some social workers were not yet experienced at building cases against parents with allegations of abuse, neglect or dependency against them. He said DSS attorney Scott Lindsay was upset one day after DSS lost three cases.

“Two of them were basically thrown out or considered a mistrial,” Hughes told the court.

Other social workers said the office used the CVAs for “stuck cases,” or when social workers thought children would be safer in another home and did not want to involve a judge. Essentially, the CVA  was a shortcut that saved time and closed cases faster.

Hughes testified that Lindsay was upset, and the lawyer’s ire was related to cost, because once a child is taken from his or her parent, the DSS office — and ultimately the county — has to provide medical care, mental health care and other services to keep the child safe. Some services are paid for with federal or state dollars, but the county has to pay a share, too.

Once the office initiated a CVA, services ended. No health care. No periodic visits from a social worker to see if a child was OK.

“I think it is pretty clear Cherokee County was not doing what was in the best interest of the children,” Jackson said in closing arguments during the civil trial. “They were doing what was in the best interest of them: The easy, cheap, quicker way.”

CVAs come to light

After conferring with other lawyers about Hogan’s CVA, Jackson represented Hogan for free in a hearing to enforce his original custody agreement.

Judge Tessa Sellers ruled the CVA as “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.”

Months later, after an Associated Press investigation pushed Cherokee County’s actions to the fore, the NC Department of Health and Human Services took over operations of the Cherokee County child welfare division — a first of its kind for the state agency. 

During part of that time, the DSS board placed Palmer on paid leave. The State Bureau of Investigations also opened an investigation into any criminal conduct by multiple social workers.

In June 2018, Palmer resigned as director, but immediately accepted a position as business officer, a financial role she’d held for years before ascending to the highest post.

The role change seemed to shield her employment status from future investigations into her conduct related to CVAs. For one thing, the DSS board could only hire or fire the director, not subordinates. Those served at the pleasure of the director. Palmer had not, according to multiple internal investigations, broken the law or policy in her job as business officer.

Carolina Public Press’ investigation found evidence of massive document shredding at DSS at the precise time that Palmer returned to work. A contractor who provides shredding services to DSS billed the agency for a volume of work many times greater than normal during the summer of 2018. 

One county statement indicated that reams of documents were shredded to clear up urgently needed space, but the space supposedly created by clearing out documents remained unused more than a year later, CPP found.

Federal and civil trials

In 2020, a grand jury indicted Palmer, Hughes and Lindsay on dozens of felony and misdemeanor charges. County Attorney Darryl Brown said he would conduct an investigation into whether Palmer should keep her job. Brown is also the attorney for the Cherokee County sheriff, currently Palmer’s husband, Derrick Palmer.

A few days later, DSS Director Amanda McGee announced via press release that  Palmer would keep her business officer position because “there was no evidence of a current incident of unacceptable personal conduct or grossly inefficient job performance.”

Meanwhile, Hogan and several others had filed suit in federal court against the county, Palmer and former DSS attorney Lindsay.

At Hogan’s civil trial in May, two judges testified that they had never seen a CVA before Jackson brought it to their attention. Hogan testified he didn’t understand what he was signing.

“They never explained it to me,” Hogan testified in May of the document he signed but could not read. “Never read it to me. I thought it was going to be temporary.”

His daughter, still a minor, testified of the anguish, shame and fear she felt while living with her grandfather. When she was around 10 years old, the girl started wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants because her grandfather would not allow her to shave, not even her underarms.

Then one day, she had her period for the first time. Her mother had not yet explained menstruation to her.

“I thought I was dying,” the girl, now a teen, testified in May. She didn’t tell anyone about it because she was “too scared.”

After that four-day trial, the jury returned with a $4.6 million award to Hogan and his daughter, which the county’s insurer is appealing. In Wake County court, the county’s insurer is also suing Cherokee County to reduce the amount it may be obligated to pay for remaining lawsuits related to CVAs.

Then last month, the county’s insurer settled a lawsuit brought by Heaven Cordell for $450,000.

Cordell, now 20, was separated from her father and sister in a similar way — without a judge’s authority and with no attorney representing her best interests. Reacting to the settlement, Cordell seemed incredulous that Palmer still worked there.

“How is she allowed to work there when she’s done that to people?” Cordell asked in an interview with CPP earlier this month. “I think they did a lot of people dirty. I think they did a lot of people wrong.”

When asked what she thought of Palmer’s resignation on Sunday night, Cordell said “I don’t really know how I feel yet. It’s just a lot.”

Long career with county

Palmer started working for Cherokee County in 1996 as a jail dispatcher earning $13,500 per year. Nearly two years later she started a job at the DSS office looking at whether people qualified for public assistance, called income maintenance. Palmer’s salary climbed slowly through the years as she took on other jobs in the DSS office.

Throughout the 2000s, Palmer held a variety of social worker positions, whose duties at times included investigating allegations of child abuse and neglect. Twice in her career she stepped up to lead the office temporarily when directors left, once in 2005 and another a decade later in the fall of 2015.

Eight months later, in March of 2016, the county DSS board selected Palmer as the permanent DSS director for Cherokee County. By that time, a handful of children had already been removed from their families without judicial oversight, a variety of court records show. 

A lawyer representing the county said workers oversaw 30 CVAs since 2008, but recent court filings say a variety of documents may have been employed as far back as 1999. Palmer’s criminal defense attorney has said she “relied on the department’s longtime lawyer, whom she believed was following the law with regard to these agreements.”

The practice of removing children from parents without any legal authority accelerated under Palmer’s leadership. According to the indictments against her, Lindsay and former social work supervisor Hughes, around two dozen children were removed from their families in 2016 and 2017 after Palmer became director.

Earlier this year, Hughes pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors for his role in the separation scheme. In exchange for truthful testimony “in any proceeding,” the state dropped 10 felony obstruction-of-justice charges against Hughes.

When contacted Monday, McGee declined to say why Palmer resigned — and resignation letters are not considered a public record in North Carolina. Palmer’s pay when she resigned was $67,659 per year, according to county records.

Palmer’s last day was Friday Oct. 8, according to a personnel action form from Cherokee County. McGee said Palmer gave notice on Sept. 27. Palmer has worked for Cherokee County for 25 years.

Scribbled at the bottom of the form are the words “ineligible for rehire.” 

“She is not going back to work anywhere in County government,” said Melody Johnson, Human Resources Director for Cherokee County.

McGee said she already has “a highly qualified pool of applicants” jostling for the opening.

Kate Martin

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