Three current and former employees of a child services agency in North Carolina were arrested this week and indicted with over three dozen felony and misdemeanor charges related to its alleged practice of separating children from their families without proper judicial oversight.
Carolina Public Press reports that among the former and current workers arrested on Monday was Cindy Palmer, the former director of the Cherokee County Department of Social Services and wife of Cherokee County Sheriff Derrick Palmer.
The other two are former Child Protective Unit supervisor David Huges and former agency attorney Scott Lindsay.
The indictment follows two years of investigations and legal action from parents who said their children were unlawfully removed from their homes by the agency’s use of coercion.
According to the independent news outlet, the practice of removing children from homes without judicial oversight is said to have occurred in the county for over a decade before the state intervened in 2017.
Palmer and Hughes were booked within minutes of each other at the Cherokee County Detention Center while Lindsay was booked on Tuesday. Palmer was released on an $8,000 bond, while Hughes was let go on a $12,500 bond and Lindsay was released on a $25,000 bond.
In total, grand jurors indicted the three accused on 41 charges that will be prosecuted by the state attorney general’s office. However, investigations did not cover all allegations against the department and there could be more charges pressed down the road.
Palmer, who served as a business officer for the department after her 2018 resignation as director, faces two felony obstruction of justice charges for allowing social workers to use controversial forms called custody and visitation agreements during 2016 and 2017. The forms essentially let agents remove children without court participation in the process.
According to her indictment, the use of the agreements “avoided judicial oversight into the activities of Cherokee County DSS and subverted the statutory process for determining abuse and neglect of children, and determining custody and parental rights.”
“This offense was done in secrecy and with malice; with deceit and intent to defraud; was infamous; and was done in violation of the common law, and against the peace and dignity of the state,” the indictment contends.
Additionally, Palmer faces a charge of perjury that was allegedly committed during a 2018 court hearing in which she claimed to not recall anything about the custody and visitation agreements. However, Palmer is being held responsible for agreements dating back to 2016.
According to Carolina Public Press, Palmer’s attorneys came to her defense by saying that the agreements happened before she became the department’s director and that she relied on the department’s lawyer who she thought was following the law.
“She adamantly denies ever acting with any sort of criminal intent,” attorney Hart Miles wrote, according to Carolina Public Press. “And she is confident that those in the community that know her understand that she is a dedicated public servant who has been wrongfully targeted in this investigation.”
A Carolina Public Press investigation found evidence in 2019 that a massive number of documents at DSS were shredded around the same time Palmer assumed her new officer position after stepping down as director.
As the former attorney for the department, Lindsay faces 20 felony counts of obstruction of justice. Lindsay claimed when asked about the origin of the custody and visitation agreement that he received the form when he attended a class for attorneys in 2007 or 2010 and that the department started using the form in 2014.
According to the news outlet, Hughes had previously testified in 2018 that he was aware of around two dozen custody and visitation agreements that the department executed since he worked there.
A proposed class-action lawsuit brought by families against the county DSS is pending in federal court. The lawsuit contends that DSS employees coerced parents into signing the unlawful agreements and parent-child relationships were negatively impacted by the unlawful agreement.
The lead plaintiff in the case is a father who was granted custody of his daughter in 2016 but was later questioned by the DSS over concerns regarding his parental abilities.
After meeting with DSS officials in November 2016, officials allegedly threatened the father into signing the agreement to relinquish custody of his daughter to her paternal grandfather.
According to the lawsuit, the father was told that the agreement was in lieu of court action and that he “would be subjected to adverse legal proceedings and other consequences if he did not sign the CVA.”
Other “false threatening and coercive statements” that the lawsuit claims DSS officials made against the father as possible actions if he did not sign include: “Your child will be adopted out and you will never see her again,” and “Your child will be placed in a location where you will have little or no contact with her.”
“Plaintiff Hogan was neither advised nor given an opportunity to contact independent legal counsel when confronted with and unlawfully pressured to sign the unlawful CVA,” the lawsuit says. “CCDSS never contacted Hogan's prior attorney regarding the meeting or the CVA.”
The lawsuit argues that the county maintained a pattern of condoning “improper, illegal, and unconstitutional techniques.”
“Defendants' actions caused Plaintiffs and Unnamed Class Members to be deprived of fundamental rights, particularly, a parental relationship with their biological children, in violation of substantive and procedural due process of the law and in violation of all Plaintiffs' equal protection rights,” the lawsuit adds.
Across the United States, some courts have come down on other social services agencies that have unlawfully removed children from their parents or legal guardians.
In California last year, a mother was awarded $1.49 million in legal settlements against Orange County, Los Angeles County, and Children’s Hospital after the state removed her sons from her custody.
In Texas last December, a state judge ordered the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to drop its five-month-long case after a 4-year-old child was removed from his parents’ home over allegations of medical abuse.