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Cherokee County recently agreed to pay its share of a combined $53 million in settlements, jury awards and attorney fees related to nearly two dozen federal lawsuits against its Department of Social Services.
The lawsuits followed actions by local social workers who convinced parents to give up their children without any judicial oversight. This is unlawful in North Carolina, a judge ruled in early 2019, a few months after the scheme was uncovered.
Lawyers for the county said its social workers were responsible for 30 child removals from 2009-18. Lawyers for the children and parents, however, say there could be dozens more.
One criminal case is pending, involving a former county attorney, Scott Lindsay. The settlement amounts against this county-run DSS are unprecedented in North Carolina for cases of this type.
Carolina Public Press has reported on child welfare issues, especially those in Cherokee County, for several years. If you’re new to the story or want a quick guide, here’s a rundown of how we got here:
How long did the Cherokee County Department of Social Services use these methods to separate children?
Starting at least a decade ago, and perhaps as far back as 1999, Cherokee County Department of Social Services workers separated children from parents without the involvement of the judicial system.
Workers often convinced parents to sign what they called a Custody and Visitation Agreement, or CVA. However, the use of these specific documents escalated in 2016, shortly after longtime department employee Cindy Palmer was selected as the department’s director. Palmer is married to Derrick Palmer, who was the county sheriff at the time and still holds the office.
What was the Custody and Visitation Agreement?
The document looked official, but its formatting was meant to deceive, and it was not legally binding. A judge later called it a “product of both actual and constructive fraud” on behalf of the Cherokee County Department of Social Services, its agents and employees, and attorney Scott Lindsay and Director Cindy Palmer.
Why did parents sign the document?
Social workers have a lot of power, and parents say they were scared and pressured by social workers to make a quick decision, according to court testimony, interviews and documents.
Social workers said if the parents didn’t sign the paper, their child would be placed in foster care somewhere far away, according to court testimony.
“It did seem sketchy, but when you have someone who you think is over you and is threatening foster care, who you know can take your kid, you kind of do what they say,” Tienda Rose Phillips told CPP in 2019. “You kind of feel you have no choice.”
Was that the only way social workers separated families unlawfully?
No. One federal lawsuit said Molly Cordell and others were removed from their homes with powers of attorney, family safety agreements, safety plans and “substantially similar agreements.” Cordell was a teenager when this happened to her.
Some of these documents are legal when used in alignment with policy and law. Powers of attorney, for example, can allow a guardian to get medical care for a child.
Why did Cherokee County do this?
Social workers testified in the only federal civil trial to go to a jury that they used CVAs to save the county money.
They used these methods on what they called “stuck cases,” where they had trouble building enough evidence for a judge to remove a child from what the social worker thought was a dangerous situation.
“It may not have been enough for a petition,” former DSS supervisor David Hughes testified last year at a federal trial, “yet we were concerned about returning the children back to the home for safety reasons.”
Petitions were not filed because “we felt like it was probably not a strong enough case to take to court,” Hughes testified.
Other lawsuits also hinted at this reason.
“These alternative removal mechanisms were designed and used to avoid in court time, judicial oversight and reduce cost to Cherokee County’s DSS budget,” Cordell’s lawsuit states.
What has happened to the people who led the DSS office at that time?
Former director Palmer pleaded guilty last year to one felony count of obstruction of justice. The judge ordered her to perform 24 hours of community service, which she completed in February. The grand jury’s indictment in 2020 included two felony obstruction-of-justice charges and one felony charge of perjury.
Hughes, the former child protective unit supervisor, was initially indicted on 10 felonies and one misdemeanor. He pleaded guilty last year to two misdemeanor charges in exchange for his testimony at any legal proceeding related to the scheme.
Scott Lindsay, the former DSS attorney, faces 20 felony obstruction-of-justice charges for advising social workers and the department director to separate children from families.
What happened to some of the children when they were in an unlawful placement?
Cordell told CPP she had to get a job to pay rent when she was in the care of someone else and lived in a “weird, crooked little pantry.” Typically when a child is placed in a foster home, the caretakers can get several hundred dollars per month to care for the child.
During a deposition prior to a federal trial, Cordell described a sexual assault she endured when she was 16 and noted Palmer’s reaction.
“I really noticed her face just kind of … dropped. She just looked really upset when she heard that,” Cordell said last year. The county settled her case for $4 million.
During Palmer’s hearing last year during which she pleaded guilty, 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.
A mother of 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 was very upset because “there were allegations that children in that house had been sexually abused by the older children,” Zellinger told the court last year. 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.”
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,” Zellinger said.
How much has Cherokee County and its insurer paid so far?
In other cases, a Cherokee County father, Brian Hogan, and his teenage daughter won a $4.6 million federal lawsuit last year. Hogan’s attorneys were also awarded $1.8 million in costs by Martin Reidinger, federal chief judge of the Western District of North Carolina.
Molly Cordell’s case settled out of court for $4 million. Her sister, Heaven Cordell, received a settlement for $450,000. Stephanie Godbold also settled her case, for $250,000.
The $42 million settlement brings the total to $53 million for nearly two dozen cases.
Former DSS attorney Lindsay so far has declined any plea agreements. After several postponements, he could face a judge and jury in September.
Thank you for fleshing out this story. I am a former local government administrator so am finding it difficult to understand how the DSS administrator walked away from this debacle with the very light punishment of 24 hours of community service. Accountability seems lacking in Cherokee County.