Cindy Palmer, former Cherokee County Department of Social Services Director, dabs her eyes in court Oct. 26, 2021, in Murphy after accepting a deal to plead guilty to obstruction of justice. Her lawyer, Hart Miles, addresses the court. Photo courtesy of NC Courts.

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Editor’s note: This article is part 1 of the three-part investigative series Dodging Standards from Carolina Public Press, which examines North Carolina local social services agencies hiring workers who don’t meet minimum standards, systemic challenges in hiring for these positions, how other states avoid these concerns and what North Carolina could do differently. This project was made possible in part through financial backing from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

In 2015, Theresa Slocum was looking for a change of scenery with a familiar feel. Her hometown of Hinsdale in rural southwestern New York state had just 2,100 people in it, so she thought Murphy, in North Carolina’s westernmost county, might be just what she needed.

Then, she saw the job opening for the director of Cherokee County’s Department of Social Services.

“I was excited about it,” she recalled earlier this month. “I was looking to relocate to North Carolina. I had been there a few times and really enjoyed the area.”

She imagined her possible future in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She had also heard that some DSS offices in the western part of the state were struggling and something about investigations — it’s been several years, Slocum explained. With her master’s degree in social work from the University of Pittsburgh and as a licensed clinical social worker with multiple years of supervisory experience, she thought she had a lot to offer Cherokee County.

“As I was reading those (stories) and looking at the job posting, I thought this would be a really great opportunity,” she said. “This was a small county, and helping them out would be good.”

Her resume passed muster with the N.C. Office of State Human Resources, or at least Slocum thinks it did — otherwise why would she get called for an interview? 

She recalls several people were on the line as she interviewed but doesn’t remember their names.

“The tone of the interview, I remember, was not good,” Slocum said, a hint of sadness in her voice. “They started into why I wanted that position because they were tired of people coming from up North and taking their jobs.”

Three questions later, the interview was over.

Instead, Cherokee County’s Social Services Board picked a local, Cindy Palmer, the wife of the county sheriff, who did not meet minimum qualifications for the job, an Office of State Human Resources employee said. 

At first, Palmer started on an interim basis. By the spring of 2016, the Social Services Board had named her the permanent replacement for a director who had long planned on retiring and had been grooming Palmer for the role, documents say.

Palmer led the department as it dramatically accelerated its unlawful practice of separating dozens of children from parents, in which social workers closed cases without ever involving the legal system. A federal jury called the practice unconstitutional. The fallout may lead to the county’s financial ruin.

When Slocum learned this month that the woman who actually got the job in 2015 wasn’t qualified, she wasn’t happy.

“In a position like that, people need certifications and qualifications to provide services to the community effectively,” said Slocum, now a self-employed therapist.

Slocum’s instinct matches state law, which prohibits hiring an unqualified director when qualified applicants are willing and able to work — but state agencies are powerless to do anything if counties hire unqualified people anyway.

Filling positions of power

Each social services department director commands an office that exercises immense power over the lives of children, families, adults with disabilities and others. These county social services departments handle an array of local and federal services that can address poverty, such as food stamps or utility assistance, and child and elder abuse. 

While state governments directly administer social services in many states, in North Carolina and a few other states, this responsibility is administered by county departments of social services.

Each county social services board, or its equivalent, hires the county DSS director, who has ultimate authority for hires within that office. Usually, county boards of commissioners set the budget, and thus the pay, for county workers, including those in DSS offices.

When hiring a director, many counties send applications to OSHR. That agency is responsible for recruiting state employees and assists counties in determining whether their applicants meet minimum qualifications for the positions the counties are seeking to fill.

Vetting these candidates is not an insignificant task. When local departments of social services accept federal funds, they also agree to abide by certain policies.

The finalist considered for most state positions, including many in DSS offices, must come from among the most qualified candidates who meet the minimum standards for the job, according to the state code on applicant selection

The law also anticipates the possibility that a DSS agency is simply unable to recruit someone who meets those minimal qualifications. In this situation, DSS agencies can use a process called “work-against” — essentially on-the-job training.

However, despite the existence of these rules, no state agency has the power to enforce them. While the state Department of Health and Human Services advises OSHR on matters of director credentials, a DHHS spokesperson said the office has no say over county hiring practices or decisions.

And though the state human resources office vets director candidates for most DSS offices statewide, it can do nothing if a county ignores the rule.

More than a quarter of counties aren’t required to send applicants to OSHR for review because their governing bodies opted to create a consolidated human services agency.

Other counties have developed a “substantially equivalent” system to recruit, select and promote workers, and can review candidate qualifications “up to and including the DSS director position,” an OSHR spokesperson said.

However, these counties must still comply with federal merit hiring standards, according to a UNC School of Government social services law bulletin.

Those federal standards thwart hiring based on cronyism and political favors by requiring merit-based hiring over political considerations to be eligible for certain federal grants. North Carolina’s selection process is outlined in state law and the administrative code

The risk of dodging standards

If a DSS office hires an unqualified worker, it could open that county to liability issues, said Kevin Marino, Rutherford County’s interim DSS director.

“I’d rather wait, honestly,” than hire a candidate who doesn’t meet minimum standards. “If that person isn’t acclimating as quickly as someone that’s fully qualified, then that puts pressure on the team to carry other cases or other work.”

Rutherford County interim Department of Social Services Director Kevin Marino outside of the DSS building in Rutherfordton. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

After Palmer took charge of Cherokee County’s DSS in 2016, the office expanded its use of a document called a Custody and Visitation Agreement to separate children and their families without any judges or lawyers involved. Once a parent signed the paper, the DSS office considered the case “closed” and declined to provide any more monitoring or services.

While this may have initially saved the county money, once discovered, the plan unraveled.

Two judges have ruled the practice unlawful, and a federal jury found the practice unconstitutional and awarded a father and his daughter $4.6 million last year. The county faces nearly two dozen similar federal lawsuits and has settled several of them. 

The parties are in talks to settle the remaining cases, but the anticipated tens of millions more in costs have the possibility of bankrupting Cherokee County. One commissioner estimated the remaining settlements could cost $50 million. 

Counties hiring unqualified directors “creates a systematic vulnerability,” said Marino, who also owns a company that consults with child welfare agencies and trains their workers.

Marino asked how, if counties hire directors who are weak in children’s services, they can know whether state or federal guidelines are being followed.

“How can you answer questions from your staff?” Marino said. “How can you weigh into the life-and-death scenarios every single day if you don’t understand the policy? You have to rely on those that are actually doing the work, but they also need support.”

Some of the Cherokee County children and families involved have described heartbreaking stories of their lives as a result of those actions.

Most of the unlawful separations occurred while Palmer was DSS director in Cherokee County, from 2016 through late 2017. Last fall, she resigned her position with Cherokee County DSS, where she still worked, and then pleaded guilty to a felony charge related to these cases. 

To date, Palmer has not commented publicly about her qualifications for the job and has only spoken to CPP through her lawyers. 

Cherokee County courthouse in Murphy. Frank Taylor / Carolina Public Press

During her sentencing hearing last year, special prosecutor Boz Zellinger from the N.C. Attorney General’s Office told the court that Palmer’s actions directly harmed children who were supposed to be in the state’s care.

When removed with a CVA, children did not receive services and at times were separated from parents for years at a time. Parents were also forced to make agonizing choices with little time to consider alternatives, Zellinger said.

A mother to a young son “was told she could temporarily sign her son to her father-in-law,” who had drug charges of his own, Zellinger said. If she did not, the child “would go into foster care.”

The mother objected and was very upset because “there were allegations that children in that house had been sexually abused by the older children.” The mother “begged DSS not to do this. In fact, there were emails from her that landed into Ms. Palmer’s email asking that this not happen,” Zellinger told the court.

Eventually, the mother stopped using drugs and went to get custody of her son. “But in January 2018, she learned that her son disclosed that he had been molested while at that house.”

Palmer’s attorney, Hart Miles, told Superior Court Judge William Coward that she accepted responsibility for her crime.

“She trusted Scott Lindsay (the county’s DSS attorney) and she trusted the previous director,” Miles told the court last year.

Palmer declined to return messages seeking comment for this series.

Unenforced standards

According to state rules that define minimum qualifications for categories of government employees, DSS directors must meet qualifications in one of three ways:

  • Have a master’s degree in social work and two years of supervisory experience in the delivery of client services. 
  • Have a bachelor’s in social work and three years of supervisory experience in the delivery of client services, of which one year must be social services. 
  • Have any bachelor’s degree, three years of supervisory experience in the delivery of client services, of which two years must be social services.

When counties send applications to OSHR, the agency and DHHS review applicants’ qualifications and make a determination on whether they meet minimum standards.

“In all of these situations … the county, not OSHR, makes the ultimate decision on hiring,” OHSR spokeswoman Jill Lucas said.

Counties are only supposed to consider applicants who meet minimum qualifications, Lucas said, quoting from the state’s administrative code: “‘The individual selected for the position shall be from among the most qualified applicants,’ and ‘the employee or applicant must possess at least the minimum qualifications set forth in the class specification of the vacancy being filled.’”

“Counties are responsible for following these regulatory requirements,” she added.

An alternative for counties with no qualified applicants is to appoint someone on an interim basis, but an interim person still has to meet minimum qualifications to be hired on a permanent basis.

Both interim appointments and the work-against process only become options when a county has no qualified applicants, according to state law.

In a statement, DHHS said a nationwide “staffing crisis in child welfare” hinders recruitment and retention, and work-against allows counties to hire people who may not meet qualifications right now but are otherwise “strong candidates” for a social services position.

Despite the existence of these rules, no state agency is empowered to enforce them. Some people are hired without meeting the qualifications or brought into the work-against process when it shouldn’t have been an option.

“OSHR lacks the power to prevent a county from completing a hiring action for one of the county’s employees,” Lucas said.

In response to reporting for this series, Lucas of OHSR expressed the agency’s interest in seeing this loophole corrected.

“OSHR is open to statutory changes that would give OSHR a clear, public escalation process if a county provides a DSS director’s application to OSHR for a determination, but then the county hires a DSS director who is not qualified,” Lucas said.

How often are unqualified people hired?

At times, finding an answer to whether a social services worker was qualified collides with a state law that says personnel records are considered confidential and not releasable to the public.

When CPP asked how many current DSS directors did not meet minimum standards as of Jan. 1, OSHR sought an opinion from the state Attorney General’s Office before replying that it couldn’t answer the question.

“OSHR will not be able to publicly disclose its determinations about whether DSS directors hired by counties were determined by OSHR to be qualified,” OSHR spokeswoman Lucas said.

In advising OSHR, a state Department of Justice attorney said the documents and information requested by CPP are exempted from disclosure under the Public Records Act because they are “confidential personnel files.” 

When asked whether a former DSS director was qualified, Mecklenburg County pointed CPP to its policies surrounding minimum qualifications and selection process. When asked again whether the director was qualified, or whether the county had followed policy in hiring the former director, the county declined to answer the question.

“According to our legal department, we are not obligated to provide information as to whether or not Mary Wilson met the qualifications for director,” spokeswoman Tammy Thompson said.

In 2008, Mecklenburg County hired Wilson, who had formerly been a corporate attorney with no experience in social work, WCNC Charlotte reported.

The state of North Carolina paid a $1.2 million fine to the federal government after cases sampled from Mecklenburg and other counties did not meet performance benchmarks, the station reported.

The county fired Wilson in September 2012. WCNC reported that employees said she was unqualified and “her inexperience hurt her standing among social workers.”

DHHS was also unable to answer the question regarding directors or other local DSS workers. 

“We do not maintain the requested data on county personnel,” the agency said in a statement.

This is in contrast to other states with a similar county-administered, state-supervised system for social services. Minnesota’s Department of Human Services allows workers to enter a trainee status for up to three years.

When asked how many workers were in trainee status, Laura Sengil, interim deputy human resources director with the Minnesota Department of Human Services, had an answer: Two out of 2,250 workers statewide were in trainee status: a child support officer and a social services supervisor.

Since state agencies in North Carolina could not provide answers on director qualifications, CPP sent a survey to 10 mostly rural counties in northeast North Carolina to ask whether their directors were qualified when hired. Bertie, Beaufort, Camden, Currituck, Dare, Pamlico, Tyrell and Washington counties said yes, their directors were qualified when hired.

Perquimans County hired its director even though she did not meet minimum qualifications and did not have the full three years of supervisory experience required, Director Susan Chaney said via email.

Chaney said she did not know whether the county had any qualified applicants when she received the job offer.

Hyde County’s DSS director, Laurie Potter, said she was the only applicant when hired more than six years ago.

“It is my understanding that your board has made every effort to recruit a qualified candidate, but that you have not been able to do so,” a letter from then-DHHS Division of Social Services Director Wayne Black said to the Hyde County Board of Social Services in 2015.

The letter outlined a support plan for Potter, which included quarterly evaluations, training and a mentorship program with a nearby director.

More than a year later, the state had completed its review and had glowing remarks on her progress, according to the documents provided by Potter.

“Her ability to discern the dynamics of a situation and seek out appropriate resources when needed (is) right on target with a seasoned director,” the 2017 evaluation said. “Director Potter has proven herself to be a dynamic negotiator, leader and overall runs a very smooth business within the department.”

CPP is unable to verify whether these counties’ answers to the survey are correct. OSHR has said it cannot provide documents that verify this information due to personnel confidentiality rules. 

Since DHHS doesn’t make county hiring decisions, it does not have information on how many workers were not qualified or in work-against status statewide, a DHHS statement said in response to CPP.

What the state knows and what it should know

Records show DHHS knew Palmer was unqualified for the Cherokee County job in 2015. When the county brought her on permanently in 2016, the state placed her on a supervision and support plan, overseen by DHHS. 

An evaluation of her progress was among the few records DHHS did produce in response to records requests from CPP.

“As you are aware, Cindy Palmer did not meet the state qualifications for a DSS director,” Darrell Renfroe, then a DHHS worker, said in a letter to the county DSS board chairwoman in his first evaluation of Palmer. 

“However, let me assure you that I strongly feel the Cherokee DSS Board of Social Services made an excellent decision when hiring Cindy Palmer as the DSS director.”

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

Marino said he thinks more unqualified directors are out there.

“I’m concerned that there are directors out there that are not fully qualified,” Marino, the interim DSS director in Rutherford County, said. 

Counties that hire unqualified leaders could be taking a legal risk, said Marino.

For example, if there’s a child fatality in the county and an unqualified worker was on the case, Marino thinks “the county is fully liable.” 

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners declined to comment for this story, citing pending litigation in Cherokee County. The county’s insurer has filed suit against the county, claiming the dishonesty of public officials in a 2021 federal civil trial voids the insurer’s obligation to cover the county’s losses.

 If that tactic is successful, the relatively poor county may be on its own in paying tens of millions of dollars for settlements and other legal costs.

One Western North Carolina attorney alleges that by not keeping track, DHHS is complicit in keeping director qualifications from the public.

“It is a secret that DHHS is keeping,” said Waynesville-based attorney David Wijewickrama, who was among the attorneys who sued Cherokee County DSS in federal court. “They are supposed to be the watchdog. They are not supposed to be co-conspirators for political gain, sticking their heads in the sand.” 

He said he was surprised the state can’t remove an unqualified director.

“It is a secret that DHHS is keeping. They are supposed to be the watchdog. They are not supposed to be co-conspirators for political gain, sticking their heads in the sand.”

David Wijewickrama, Waynesville-based attorney

“It’s mind-boggling to me that there’s no enforcement or oversight mechanism,” Wijewickrama said. Social services workers wield enormous power, and it’s risky when that power is paired with a lack of training, Wijewickrama said, noting that rules, regulations and procedures exist for a reason.

Wijewickrama knows the harm unqualified DSS workers can do to families. To date, he and his colleagues have won a combined $10.9 million in jury awards, settlements and attorney fees from the Cherokee County cases.

“If you don’t do this the correct way, there’s a strong potential that constitutional rights will get violated,” Wijewickrama said. “Worse than that, children can be hurt. Worse than that, a child could die, or a child could be abused.”

Kate Martin

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

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