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Why A Jury Awarded Millions To A North Carolina Father And Daughter Separated By DSS

The Cherokee County Department of Social Services is seen in Murphy in 2018.
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The Cherokee County Department of Social Services is seen in Murphy in 2018.

A federal jury awarded Brian Hogan and his daughter $4.6 million last week after Cherokee County Department of Social Services officials separated him from his daughter about four years ago. After Hogan’s wife had a massive heart attack, neighbors took his daughter in while he was with his wife recuperating in the hospital.

DSS did not like the daughter’s living situation and, in the court case, Hogan’s attorneys argued that DSS pressured Hogan to sign a custody and visitation agreement, or CVA. By signing the document, he relinquished his parental rights to his then-10-year-old daughter. CVAs are not legal documents, but Cherokee’s DSS had used them in more than 30 known cases to remove children from their parents’ homes.

Carolina Public Press investigative reporter Kate Martin has been following the story.

Kate Martin: The pace of these documents increased in 2016, and according to testimony from former workers at DSS in Cherokee County, they used it in what they considered as "stuck cases" — instances where DSS was unable to remove the child from the home through legal means, and so they encourage parents to sign these documents.

Glenn: And also, from reading your reporting, in addition to what you call the stuck cases, that those cases were causing the county to spend a lot of money — that it was a money issue as well.

Martin: That's my understanding. Around 2016, the county was under a lot of pressure to close these cases because they're very expensive. The longer a child is under the purview of DSS and the court, the more the county has to spend money to provide services like mental health and other types of counseling or perhaps assistance in some fashion.

Glenn: Looking into the department overall, tell us what happened there.

Martin: So, after the Hogan case, there were other parents who heard about this, or the attorney had also reached out to other parents to see what was going on. The attorney then got other attorneys involved and also the State Bureau of Investigation started investigating all of this. And long story short, there was a court hearing a few months after the original hearing that Hogan had where this judge, Tessa Sellers, invalidated all of the remaining custody and visitation agreements.

Glenn: OK, and tell us the players here. And wasn't there a thing of some of these documents went missing and there were denials by the top people in the department that they were actually even being used

Martin: Right. Scott Lindsay is the attorney who provided the custody and visitation agreement to social workers. And then there's other supervisors, like David Hughes was a supervisor of child welfare workers. Cindy Palmer was the director of the DSS office in Cherokee County. When these documents were discovered, she was placed on paid leave. She testified in late 2018. The first time she had ever heard of a CVA was in December 2017. And that was when the judge had exposed these documents and a court case. That was the case where Mr. Hogan was able to get his daughter back after the judge invalidated his custody and visitation agreement. The judge called these documents constructive fraud by Cindy Palmer, Scott Lindsay and the Cherokee County Department of Social Services.

Glenn: Now, Brian Hogan said that he was forced to sign the document, the CVA — that he was threatened with jail, that his daughter would be put in a foster home or adopted. And he's also illiterate, so he said he didn't know what he was signing. What else can you tell us about that forced signing in terms of what came out in court?

Martin: The social workers were saying, "Well, we explained this when he asked questions." The jury decided that his due process rights were violated and possibly that he felt like he was forced to do it.

Glenn: Now, the state temporarily took over that DSS, right?

Martin: The state initially took over in April of 2018. And they left, I believe, about six months later.

Glenn: And this was a first-ever in the state?

Martin: Right — the first time in the state that this had ever happened.

Glenn: Now, local social services — and not the state — are in charge of child welfare decisions, and those vary from county to county. Are there any efforts to introduce legislation to change this so everybody is operating under the same rules?

Martin: You know, the DSS offices are supposed to get the same training from the state no matter where they are. And as far as legislation, I don't believe there's been a whole lot of followthrough on some of that.

Glenn: Now, there was a memorandum of understanding that the Cherokee commissioners have refused to sign. Have they signed it at this point, which they would have to comply with state rules?

Martin: No, they have not signed the memorandum. They are objecting to the standards that the state is asking the county to meet, because they say that they are not given adequate time in court to try to get these cases through the system. And I want to also mention that Cherokee County is the only county and all 100 counties in North Carolina to refuse to sign that memorandum.

Kate Martin is a reporter for Carolina Public Press. She says several indictments have been filed against Cindy Palmer and Scott Lindsay.

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Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.