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

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Cherokee County’s insurer has settled a lawsuit with a woman whom county officials separated from her family as a child without judicial oversight, awarding her $4 million.

County Department of Social Services workers separated Molly Cordell and her sister from their family as teenagers after their mother died. She and her sister are now in their 20s.

“We are happy with the outcome and have several more (cases) to go,” said Melissa Jackson, one of the attorneys for Molly and her sister Heaven Cordell and others separated from through similar illegal schemes over several years.

This is the second settlement since lawyers representing dozens of plaintiffs filed cases in federal court three years ago.

The insurer settled with Heaven Cordell in September for $450,000. She said then she was happy it settled but also fumed over the county’s refusal to admit wrongdoing, which is standard language in many settlement contracts.

After their mother died of a bacterial infection, the family with whom Heaven stayed refused to allow her to visit with her sister, who ended up with a different family. This led them to meet in secret, according to Heaven.

Not seeing her sister anguished her, Heaven Cordell told Carolina Public Press in October.

“We always had this strong connection,” she said.

Molly Cordell could not be reached for comment prior to publication.

Pressure to sign

Molly Cordell’s lawsuit is similar in most respects to dozens of other children and parents suing Cherokee County DSS and multiple former employees.

Cherokee County DSS workers removed dozens of other children using powers of attorney, family safety agreements, safety plans and “substantially similar agreements” as far back as 1999 to avoid court oversight, her lawsuit says.

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

Among those documents was a Custody and Visitation Agreement. Former DSS attorney Scott Lindsay explained where it came from at a 2018 court hearing, that he got a copy of a CVA during a continuing legal education course in 2007 or 2010 — or “perhaps earlier.”

The CVA was drafted to appear like a valid legal document, but it was not.

In May, a federal jury decided father Brian Hogan and his now-teenage daughter were due $4.6 million after a four-day trial in Asheville

Hogan, like other parents, felt pressured to sign the CVA, he told the court.

He’d signed a variety of documents for DSS in spring and early summer of 2016, but he didn’t know what they said. Hogan can’t read. One of those was an agreement giving custody of his daughter to her grandfather — this one was legal, and it was temporary. 

“They just said that I had to sign them because it was in the best interest of (my daughter),” Hogan testified at a civil federal trial in May.

If he didn’t sign, he testified, “They told me several times: ‘Brian, if you don’t sign these and do what we say, we’re going to give her to the state. And you’re not going to get her back.’”

Social workers gave him 24 hours to decide, special prosecutor Boz Zellinger said in an October court hearing during which former Cherokee County DSS Director Cindy Palmer pleaded guilty to felony obstruction of justice.

In fall 2016, DSS arranged for Hogan’s father to drive him to the DSS office, he testified. Once there, Hogan said no judge or lawyers were present. At the time, Hogan testified, he didn’t have a home, so he signed what he thought was another temporary custody agreement. Nobody told him it would last until his daughter turned 18 years old.

“I never knew nothing about that,” he testified.

For more than a year, Hogan’s daughter lived with her grandfather while her father rarely saw her. One day he ran into Jackson on the courthouse steps. The attorney told him to pick his daughter up from school.

After he wasn’t allowed to pick her up, Jackson pressed the matter in court in December 2017. District Court Judge Monica Leslie had never seen a CVA before and asked the assembled lawyers to meet in a back room to ask a number of questions.

“I next asked Mr. Lindsay under what statutory or legal authority did DSS have to ask people to enter into such agreements, and (Lindsay) responded, ‘None,’” Leslie’s sworn statement reads.

She ruled the CVA signed by Hogan “is not a valid legal document and is not enforceable or binding and is hereby null and void.” Leslie then enforced the original order, returning Hogan’s daughter to him.

Parents have told CPP they felt similar pressure. In 2019, two women said social workers told them they’d never see their kids again, or they’d be placed in foster homes far away, if they did not sign the paperwork.

In reality, the department used these tactics to close cases faster and save money, social workers testified in May. At times, social workers thought children would be safer in another home and did not want to involve a judge for what they called “stuck cases.”

While there could be a yearslong court battle over who is responsible for paying jury awards like the one in Hogan’s case — the county and other defendants or the insurer — the settlement means the Cordells can be paid sooner. 

Molly Cordell’s settlement agreement says she and her attorneys must be paid within 30 days.

Indictments and convictions

Removing children with a CVA or any other document or process that avoids judicial oversight and legal representation is a crime, according to indictments against Lindsay and Palmer filed last year.

Lindsay faces 20 felony counts of obstruction of justice, two misdemeanor counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and one count of willful failure to discharge duties. More hearings in his criminal case are scheduled for next year.

Palmer pleaded guilty in October to a single count of felony obstruction of justice. Since she had no criminal record, she was sentenced to 24 hours of community service. She had worked for the department even after her indictment, taking a voluntary demotion to a financial role. Palmer resigned from that post in early October. Her husband, Derrick Palmer, is the elected sheriff.

Former Child Protective Unit supervisor David Hughes pleaded guilty in July to two misdemeanor charges in exchange for testifying “in any proceeding,” according to his plea transcript. 

What’s next

Attorneys for the families have dozens more federal lawsuits in the works. The next civil trial could be in federal court next year. Stephanie Godbold is suing the county, Lindsay, Palmer and former DSS director Donna Crawford. The filing says Godbold, who has unspecified intellectual disabilities, approached Cherokee County DSS in 2009 or 2010 for help managing her daughter’s behavior.

Rather than help her with the problem, Social Services opened an investigation into whether Godbold’s child should be taken from her. The filing says there was no evidence her child was abused, neglected or dependent.

Not long after, the court filing says, she went to the DSS office, where she was coerced into signing a CVA without a lawyer present and without a judge’s involvement. A judge invalidated all CVAs in 2018.

Two related legal maneuvers by Cherokee County’s insurer are also ongoing. N.C. Counties Liability Property Joint Risk Management Agency says it should not have to pay all or any of Hogan’s $4.6 million award because public officials were dishonest.

Separately, the risk management agency’s filing in Wake County Superior Court earlier this year says the insurer should not be on the hook for the costs because Lindsay and Palmer did not aid in the county’s defense. Both asserted their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination to more than 200 questions.

“Lindsay and Palmer’s assertion of their Fifth Amendment rights and their refusal to answer almost any question related to the underlying lawsuits resulted in the court instructing the jury that an adverse inference could be drawn against them in the Hogan trial,” the insurance company lawsuit says.

Kate Martin

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