ASHEVILLE — Families suing Cherokee County for illegally removing children from their homes are one step closer to a monetary settlement.
During a June 23 federal court hearing in Asheville, U.S. Magistrate Judge W. Carleton Metcalf approved attorney David Wijewickrama’s request for a 30-day extension.
Wijewickrama and his team will use the extension to speak to each of the nearly two dozen remaining plaintiffs suing Cherokee County’s Department of Social Services for removing children from their families without legal authority as far back as 2006 and perhaps longer.
Cherokee County’s attorney, Sean Perrin, said during the hearing Thursday that the N.C. Counties Liability Property Joint Risk Management Agency, a risk management pool for dozens of counties in North Carolina, had agreed to the terms of the settlement.
Cherokee County commissioners will vote on the matter June 29, the day on which commissioners are expected to approve the county’s budget, Perrin said.
If the county approves the settlement, it will close a decadeslong chapter during which social workers separated children from families without any legal authority.
Social workers separated families in a variety of ways, among them with a document called a Custody and Visitation Agreement.
While CVAs are formatted to appear like an official custody agreement, they have no legal weight, Superior Court judges have previously ruled. Dozens of families were tricked by social workers into giving up their children, without any kind of court or legal oversight, according to previous court testimony.
Once children were removed from their families, social workers testified in a federal civil trial last year, the DSS office closed the cases. When a case was closed, it was as though the children dropped out of sight from the people who were charged with protecting them, and social workers no longer checked on their well-being.
Court records show a wide array of negative consequences for children while separated with these unlawful agreements: Some children could not enroll in school. Some did not have access to medical care. Some children will face lifelong medical problems due to the neglect they endured. Others were molested or raped while away from their parents.
At the time of the lawsuits’ filing, their ages ranged from less than a year old to their late teens.
In May 2021, a federal jury awarded Brian Hogan and his teenage daughter $4.6 million after a four-day civil trial in Asheville. Jurors found Cherokee County’s Department of Social Services had violated their constitutional rights to due process and their 14th Amendment right to their “fundamental liberty interest in the care, custody, management and companionship” of their children.
Hogan had signed the CVA document in 2016 after he spent months in Asheville attending to his wife, who had endured a heart attack. Hogan testified last year that he felt intense pressure from social workers to sign the document.
Hogan eventually relented because he thought if he did not, the state would take his daughter away and he would never see her again. Hogan, who is largely illiterate, testified he could not read the document and did not understand what he was signing. The social worker also testified that she did not explain the document to him.
Meanwhile, the daughter went to live with Hogan’s father. During that time, she testified, her grandfather forced her to wear dresses and often refused to let her talk with her father and mother. While there she menstruated for the first time and testified that she thought she was dying.
The jury ultimately awarded the Hogans $4.6 million.
Use of Custody and Visitation Agreements rapidly accelerated in 2016 as former DSS Director Cindy Palmer took the helm. She later pleaded guilty to felony obstruction of justice.
Palmer has said she leaned heavily on the advice of the agency’s attorney, Scott Lindsay, who faces 20 felony charges in a criminal case currently set for July.
To date, the county and its insurer owe $11.1 million related to the Hogan case and three other settlements, only some of which have been paid, according to county records.
Now, the remaining plaintiffs are on the brink of settlements that altogether could amount to tens of millions of dollars.
How much the county and insurer will ultimately pay is a mystery.
The dollar amount of the settlement was not disclosed during the hearing per the judge’s orders, Wijewickrama told Carolina Public Press. A county commissioner, however, said last year in a public meeting that the lawsuits could cost $50 million if the remaining lawsuits settle.
When Metcalf asked Perrin whether the defense anticipated any further changes to the settlement agreement, Perrin said no.
“I hope not,” Perrin said, as a collective laughter filled the courtroom.
“No, your honor, we are done.”
Lawyers are expected to provide a status report to the court in mid-July.
Then, Wijewickrama and a mediator will craft official approvals of the settlement on behalf of the plaintiff. This process will likely take until the end of September, Wijewickrama told the judge.