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Crime & Justice

In the fallout from DSS child separation in Cherokee County, 2 officials charged with felonies

Cherokee County's Department of Social Services
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Cherokee County's Department of Social Services.

The former director of the Cherokee County Department of Social Services pleaded guilty last week to charges connected with the use of a document that removed children from their parents without oversight from the courts.

The plea agreement is the latest turn of events in a saga that unfolded when the State Bureau of Investigation started investigating the county's use of that document called a Custody and Visitation Agreement, or CVA. Kate Martin has been reporting on the story for Carolina Public Press and joins WFAE's "All Things Considered" host Gwendolyn Glenn to talk about it.

Gwendolyn Glenn: Kate, let's start with what is a CVA and how often was it used by Cherokee's Department of Social Services?

Kate Martin: A Custody and Visitation Agreement wasn't all that common, but when it was used, social workers told a court in Asheville during a civil trial that they used it in cases where they had "stuck cases," where it was difficult to get evidence to remove a child from a home or where they thought a judge wouldn't agree with them that a placement away from the child's parents would be safe. So, you know, not all that common. So far as I know, it was only used in Cherokee County.

Glenn: OK, and exactly what is it?

Martin: It looks like a very legal document, right? I mean, it's got "the child shall remain in the custody" of whoever they're assigning the child to until the child turns 18. It has conditions like, the parents can come and see the kid as long as the new custodian agrees and the parents can't be on drugs or alcohol. It also has signature blocks at the bottom for a notary. And when people would sign the document, they would sometimes go to the Department of Social Services' office and sign it in front of social services workers.

Glenn: OK. And this was used, from my understanding from your reporting, in about 30 various cases and a judge ruled that it's illegal, right?

Martin: Right. Two judges did, in fact. One judge ruled on a specific CVA and said that it was unlawful and a previous custody agreement stood. A second judge later invalidated all of the rest of them.

Glenn: And we talked back in May, and when I talked to you then, there was a father who won $4.6 million and his daughter was part of this after his daughter was taken away through a CVA. Other families suing, as well?

Martin: Yes, they, in fact, are. As far as I know, there's at least a couple dozen lawsuits and most of them are for the children who have been affected by the Custody and Visitation Agreements.

Glenn: And let's get to the former director of Cherokee's Department of Social Services, Cindy Palmer. She pleaded guilty to a charge of obstruction of justice. Tell us about what that plea was tied to.

Martin: Yes, that's a felony, and it's tied to her actions as leading the office while the Custody and Visitation Agreements were being used in 2016. You know, basically they're saying that she should have known about these documents. She went and did a lot of the training that told directors and social workers exactly what the legal means of removing a child ought to be.

Glenn: And there were other charges against her, too, that were dropped in this plea deal. Tell us about those.

Martin: Right. She had two felony obstruction of justice charges. One of those was dropped. She had three misdemeanors, for instance, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, which is basically causing a child to be in a place other than with their parents. One of them was related to willful failure to discharge duties. And then she also had a felony perjury charge that was related to her testimony in a court case right when this all came out.

Glenn: Now you wrote that I think it was the attorney for the department who also had obstruction of justice and other charges against him. He asked for a similar kind of deal, but was denied. Explain that.

Martin: I don't believe he's actually asked for a plea deal at this point. I know that his lawyer is filing to get all of the charges dropped. The judge in the case last week did drop the misdemeanor charges because the statute of limitations has run out on those. But there are still 20 felony obstruction of justice charges that stand for Scott Lindsay, who's the former attorney. And during court, the prosecutor from the Attorney General's office, he said that there are more that could be coming because it seems that they have uncovered even more of these Custody and Visitation Agreements that they didn't previously know about.

Glenn: And why were a lot of Palmer's dropped and Lindsay's denied? Did it have anything to do with her connections? She is the wife of the sheriff there, correct?

Martin: Yes. Derrick Palmer is the sheriff, and he's also her husband. Now she did hire a very expensive attorney out of Raleigh, Hart Miles. It's my understanding they will discuss things with prosecutors and try to work out deals, and that's apparently what happened here. Cindy Palmer, as part of her sentencing, she's not going to get any kind of an active sentence. She will have a felony on her record and I believe that she has been sentenced to do 24 hours of community service, which I should point out is less than one hour for every CVA that we're aware of so far.

Glenn: So what are you hearing from families who were separated through the CVA document? Do they feel justice has been served so far?

Martin: Well, I did talk to Hannah Allen. She's a 26-year-old mother who was among the dozens of people suing the county, Scott Lindsay and Cindy Palmer. The county had removed her 2-year-old son and placed the son with her mom using a CVA. After the sentencing, part of the mitigating factors that Cindy Palmer's lawyer spoke about was that she is in good standing in the community, and Hannah strongly disagreed with that. She said, "I'm part of the community, I'm part of Cherokee County." She did not agree with this sentence and thought that Cindy should be facing jail time.

Glenn: And what's next in all of this?

Martin: Well, we've got these charges against Scott Lindsay. It's my understanding that it could come to court in February 2022. He's being represented by a man named Jerry Townson, who is basically representing Scott for free because Scott is indigent, is my understanding

Glenn: He's the attorney?

Martin: Right. Scott Lindsay is the former attorney for DSS. Correct. Thank you. And then, of course, we have all of these looming civil lawsuits, which one county commissioner told me if they all go to trial could cost the county as much as $50 million. However, it seems that the county's insurance company is trying to say, since there are people who've pleaded guilty to crimes in connection to their duties in the office, that they're not obligated to cover them under their insurance. So there's quite a pickle coming up for Cherokee County.

Glenn: Thank you for that update.

Martin: You're welcome. Thank you for having me.

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