Cherokee County Department of Social Services office in Murphy. Seen here on June 13, 2022. Shelby Harris / Carolina Public Press

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MURPHY — The Cherokee County Department of Social Services must hand over all documents related to all open DSS cases on the calendar, a District Court judge ruled at a Monday hearing. 

Last month, local attorney David Moore said he filed a subpoena for DSS records after learning that Cherokee County DSS was under investigation by the state of North Carolina yet again after a 5-month-old’s January death.

Despite a motion from DSS to quash Moore’s subpoena, District Court Judge Kristina Earwood approved Moore’s subpoena on Monday, requesting the documents. Moore is seeking documents related to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ supervision and oversight since Jan. 1.

The child’s death prompted a state-mandated investigation of Cherokee County DSS by DHHS, which has said it found several deviations from accepted child welfare practices.

Earwood also ruled that Cherokee County DSS must give Moore all records of the agency’s communication with the state since the investigation began.

Moore and other attorneys involved in the cases can review the files and share them with their clients. However, the state documents, per Earwood’s ruling, cannot be shared with clients, since these are generally covered by confidentiality laws. 

“I want to make sure the latter is released only to you,” the judge said. “It is a violation and a felony to share it with a client.”

Moore practices law in the western part of the state, often representing parents in DSS court cases. He’s also the attorney for the Macon and Clay county departments of social services.

Since May, Moore has said he wanted to subpoena Cherokee County DSS Director Amanda Tanner-McGee to be present in court to potentially testify about what was in the documents. Tanner-McGee did not show up to a hearing in May and said she was “unaware of the subpoena.”

On Monday, Tanner-McGee sat with attorneys in the front of the courtroom and spoke occasionally with social workers at the hearing who testified in other child welfare cases. However, she was not called to testify.

Tanner-McGee did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

The Cherokee County Courthouse in downtown Murphy, seen here on a rainy May 23, 2022. Shelby Harris / Carolina Public Press

Infant death under DSS watch

A gut-wrenching 911 call, riddled with bellowing sobs from parents and a young child trying to communicate with the dispatcher on the other end of the phone, revealed the 5-month-old’s father and brother attempting CPR on the lifeless infant on Jan. 22. 

The resuscitation attempts were unsuccessful, and the child was declared dead the same day. 

Joe Wood, Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office chief deputy of investigations, said there seemed to be no obvious cause of death. Wood has since left to work in a nearby county.

“He was a healthy, chunky little guy, 5 months old, with no obvious signs of trauma,” Wood said in February.

The child’s death triggered a mandatory state investigation since the family was currently under the watch of Cherokee County DSS. Social workers returned the child to his parents about a week before his death. Before that, DSS workers removed him from his parents’ custody and placed him with his grandmother, according to 911 call recordings.

Carolina Public Press is not identifying the family. So far, nobody has been charged with a crime, and identifying the parents could identify the boy’s siblings.

When a child whose family was in contact with a county DSS dies, state workers examine whether county workers followed law, policy and accepted practices. 

A letter from DHHS expressed serious concerns about Cherokee County’s actions. A March 4 letter from DHHS to the county detailed the following deficiencies:

  • Supervisory oversight was not regular and did not provide appropriate directives for workers.
  • Safety plans were not sufficient to provide protection.
  • Overreliance on “drug screens” to determine case direction and determine safety plans.
  • Failure of internal protocols to address tracking of assigned cases.
  • Child welfare staff demonstrates an inability to have critical conversations with families.

As a result, the state required Cherokee County DSS to complete a “corrective action plan” and required a DHHS staff member to “remain on-site to provide program management oversight of the child welfare section.

“This oversight will continue until Cherokee County can demonstrate capacity with either contract or county staff to competently assume this role,” the letter stated.

Last month, Tanner-McGee said she expected the state would bless the county’s corrective action plan within a week. However, the plan remains open.

“At this time, the Corrective Action Plan (CAP) is still ‘open’ or active,” said DHHS spokeswoman Bailey Pennington on Tuesday. “DHHS staff have continued to meet with Cherokee County DSS to review and update their CAP.”

A regional child welfare consultant continues to visit weekly, Pennington said.

Shelby Harris

Shelby Harris a Carolina Public Press staff writer, based in Asheville. Email her at sharris@carolinapublicpress.org to contact her.

Kate Martin

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

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  1. My question from the beginning of this was, did they do an autopsy on the baby ? If not, why not? If they did, why isn’t the info out there publicly? In Fla, they always do an autopsy on kids who show no outward sign of abuse. In my daughter’s case, she died at 5wks 1day. State of FL did autopsy. Found she died from undiagnosed congenital heart disease, 4 things wrong with her heart. I’m glad they did the autopsy, it is a good thing to pass on to family to be aware for next gen kids. In this case, perhaps the baby had issues no one was aware of. Was an autopsy done?