Molly Cordell poses for a photo near her home in Murphy in late 2020. Photo courtesy of Molly Cordell.

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Molly Cordell calmed her newborn son Tuesday morning as she talked about some of the most traumatic events of her life and the disbelief of a multimillion-dollar settlement that could change their lives forever.

When she was 15, workers with the Cherokee County Department of Social Services whisked her away from her family, separating her from her sister, Heaven. Their mother had recently died from a bacterial infection, and they lived with their grandmother. 

In grief-stricken rants, their grandmother blamed them for her daughter’s death.

“We didn’t know how to handle it,” Molly Cordell said. Then one day their grandmother said “she couldn’t take care of us anymore” and called DSS. 

No judge was involved. She wasn’t represented by a lawyer. Cherokee County DSS had ginned up a fraudulent document that workers said legally granted custody to someone else. It did not.

Molly went to live with her brother in Alabama but she said the school district there refused to recognize the Custody and Visitation Agreement drafted by Cherokee County DSS — one of many documents the office used to separate dozens of children from their families over many decades.

In the intervening months and years, she would live in a variety of places, eventually ending up at a home where she lived in a “weird, crooked little pantry.” As she was moving in, she was told she’d had to pay rent.

It gave her pause, but where else was she supposed to go?

“I was like, OK, that sucks, but at the same time, I was just like I have to have a place to live, so it’s not that bad,” she said.

Had she been placed in the legal foster care system, the family would have been paid several hundred dollars per month for her care. Instead, she said she worked at a fast-food restaurant to pay rent, usually a couple hundred dollars a month and sometimes more. 

At the same time, Heaven Cordell went to live with a local family — again under the auspices of a document now ruled unlawful by two judges. In a recent interview with Carolina Public Press, Heaven Cordell said she was isolated from her sister and was forced to figure her medical care out on her own.

Molly Cordell, a year older than Heaven, said she also had trouble getting medical care. Her Medicaid benefits lapsed after her mother died, and the doctor’s office refused to see her without a guardian present.

Heaven Cordell recently inked her own settlement, for $450,000. There are around 20 more cases involving Cherokee County children filed in federal court, and the next case is due to come up sometime next year.

Face to face with Cindy Palmer

In mid-September, Cordell sat down for her deposition in preparation for her upcoming civil trial. Cindy Palmer, the former DSS director, sat across the table with her own lawyer.

As Cordell answered questions about her life outside the legal foster care system, she said Palmer seemed shocked at some of Cordell’s testimony. She described multiple moves and times when she didn’t attend school for weeks at a time because she lacked legal paperwork.

“It came from me not having the resources I needed or the guidance or the rules. … I don’t think she realized that they put a kid in that predicament,” she said. “I don’t think she realized how bad of a situation they left me in.”

During the deposition, as Molly Cordell described a sexual assault she endured when she was 16, she said she noticed Palmer’s reaction.

“I really noticed her face just kind of … dropped. She just looked really upset when she heard that,” Cordell said Tuesday.

Molly Cordell explained that she had empathy for Palmer, the person who was in charge of the department as the use of CVAs and other documents to separate parents and children expanded.

“I didn’t want to make her feel bad,” Cordell said. 

“I know that it was her job to put me in a better position and that they pushed illegal documents. And I know, they realized what they were doing was wrong most likely, but they were under a tremendous amount of pressure.”

David Wijewickrama, one of her attorneys, verified the sexual assault was discussed during the Cordell’s deposition.

“What she said is the truth — and we have the medical records to prove it,” he said.

Carolina Public Press reached out to Palmer’s attorney and did not receive a comment in time for publication.

The week following Cordell’s deposition, Palmer turned in her two-week notice to resign from her financial position at Cherokee County DSS, where she continued to work even after being investigated by the State Bureau of Investigation and indicted with multiple felony and misdemeanor charges related to her work as the DSS director.

Palmer pleaded guilty to one felony count of obstruction of justice in late October. Superior Court Judge William Coward ordered her to pay court costs, submit a DNA sample and perform 24 hours of community service during the next six months, paying any related costs herself.

Coward also forbade her from working at Cherokee County DSS again.

Headlines spur cases along

News media attention to these cases has spurred state and local officials to action since the unlawful agreements came to light in late 2017.

The cases drew scrutiny in December 2017, when Brian Hogan, the father of another Cherokee County child, ran into attorney Melissa Jackson on the steps of the Cherokee County Courthouse. Jackson later learned Hogan’s daughter had been taken away without judicial approval, represented him for free and fought for him to get his daughter back. Jackson learned there were many more cases.

After a February 2018 emergency hearing covered by Associated Press reporter Mitch Weiss, District Court Judge Tessa Sellers later voided all CVAs and called them “a product of actual and constructive fraud” by the department, Palmer and its former attorney Scott Lindsay.

The following month Weiss and his AP colleague Holbrook Mohr exposed the CVAs to a national audience. Two days after their report, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services sent a letter to Cherokee County DSS announcing it intended to take over the department’s child welfare office — a first in the entire state.

DHHS leaders sent multiple workers to Cherokee County — a roughly six-hour one-way drive from its Raleigh headquarters — in an apparent attempt to right the ship after the negative headlines. DHHS workers occupied the office for several months, while sending regular reports about the office’s deficiencies. The first report came roughly two weeks after state officials arrived, calling Palmer’s leadership “ineffective” and “inactive.”

CPP picked up the story in May 2019 shortly after several of the civil lawsuits transferred to the federal North Carolina Western District Court in Asheville. Personnel records showed Palmer continued to work there, and in subsequent stories CPP revealed that Palmer was rehired in another role after she resigned as director despite being under investigation by the state Bureau of Investigation.

Contrary to orders from lawyers, judges and a state DHHS acting director not to destroy any child welfare records, workers set in motion an unprecedented document shredding operation that continued through the summer of 2018.

Nearly three years before Palmer resigned as director, former DSS Director Donna Crawford sought to verify Palmer’s fitness as her successor for the job by contacting the state’s Office of State Human Resources, according to records received from a request filed by CPP.

Even after an amended job application, OSHR consultant Dominick D’Erasmo gave former DSS board member Karen Kephart some bad news.

“Unfortunately, Ms. Palmer does not meet the requirements for the Director vacancy as previously discussed,” D’Erasmo wrote. CPP has filed another records request asking for more information.

Wijewickrama, one of Cordell’s attorneys, said he mourns the death of local newspapers and said CPP’s coverage made a big difference in informing locals about these cases. Wijewickrama said some locals did not see the damage done by the DSS practice.

“I know that I’ve been told by people inside Cherokee County that your coverage is the bane of the commissioners’ existence,” Wijewickrama said Monday night. “If local newspapers are not there to ask the tough questions and hold their feet to the fire, the people will drink the snake oil poured for them, and they’ll never know the difference.”

What few local rural papers remain, Wijewickrama said, “are handcuffed to local businesses … or local business owners that may be engaged in conduct that’s not good for the public — but the editor’s job is to sell ads, not the truth.”

An article focusing in part on the experiences of Molly and Heaven by ProPublica, a national nonprofit investigative news organization based in New York, appeared last week, as well as in The New York Times Magazine. The article brought a national spotlight to Cherokee County DSS’ unlawful acts.

Molly Cordell’s $4 million settlement was finalized on Monday.

An unimagined future

When she still lived with her family and while her mother was still alive, Molly Cordell said she imagined herself as a social worker, helping young adults through the most troubling parts of their lives.

“I don’t really want to do that right now,” she said Tuesday.

Once she gets her settlement money, she expects to move to a neighboring state, to a larger city. Her boyfriend works in construction, so he can work anywhere. He’s a quick learner, she said.

Molly Cordell said that she wanted to go to college, but that dream has stalled. Because she was not in legal foster care, she could not fill out forms to qualify for free or reduced-cost college education and so she didn’t go. She couldn’t afford it.

All that’s changed.

When asked what she wanted her future to look like, she paused.

“I think I’m going to go back to college to be a teacher,” she said. “I just love being around kids.”

Kate Martin

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