Cherokee County Courthouse in Murphy, N.C. Frank Taylor / Wmforo
Cherokee County courthouse in Murphy. Frank Taylor / Wmforo

Federal officials may have turned their attention toward possible felonies committed by current and former child welfare workers with the Cherokee County Department of Social Services, possibly due to a massive document shredding campaign in 2018.

For a year and a half, state law enforcement agencies have investigated actions of workers who, for more than a decade, took children from parents without judicial oversight under the guise of a document called a Custody and Visitation Agreement, or CVA.

Among those under investigation is the department’s former director, Cindy Palmer. She continues to work there as the office’s business officer, largely in charge of financial matters. The state’s criminal investigation is ongoing.

In recent months, though, the matter may have gained the eye of the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Ashley Welch, district attorney for the state’s seven westernmost counties, traveled to Asheville in July to meet with the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The 146-mile round trip from her Franklin office, according to Welch’s mileage reimbursement form, occurred on the day Wmforo published an investigation into a massive document shredding campaign at Cherokee County’s DSS office last summer.

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When reached by phone last week, Welch told CPP that “staff and lawyers with the U.S. Attorney’s Office” attended the meeting but would not be more specific.

Welch said her discussion involved a “pending investigation” related to her prosecutorial district.

When asked whether she was able to deny that the DSS shredding article was a discussion topic, Welch said she could not.

It was her first in-person meeting with the U.S. Attorney’s Office this year, she said. While phone calls are not infrequent, a face-to-face discussion is rare, Welch said. “It has to involve something that’s a federal nexus.”

Lia Bantavani, a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney R. Andrew Murray, said, “Our U.S. attorney meets with DAs throughout the district to strengthen our partnership with state prosecutors.” An office for the special assistant U.S. attorney is based in Asheville, she said.

Bantavani did not answer a question about the nature of the meeting between U.S. attorney’s staff and Welch.

Why DSS shredding would be a federal concern

Welch met with U.S. attorney’s staff and lawyers on the same day CPP published an investigation into Cherokee County DSS’ document shredding activities.

CPP interviewed Welch in the weeks leading up to the publication of the article, which showed the cost and volume of shredding at Cherokee County’s DSS office rose to unprecedented heights at the same time that the office was under investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services controlled the administration of its child welfare office.

The Cherokee DSS office was under a state court order to retain all documents related to all of its child welfare cases. District Court Judge Tessa Sellers ruled in March 2018 that the CVAs were “a product of actual and constructive fraud” and invalidated all of them.

Sellers also ordered Cherokee County officials not to destroy or modify any documents related to child welfare or the CVAs unless there was a specific order from the court allowing them to do so.

But prior to Sellers’ request to preserve records was one by attorneys Melissa Jackson and David Wijewickrama, who represented a family whose child was separated from them with a CVA. The county received the attorneys’ request to preserve records related to their client and their daughter, in all file formats, “relating to the above incident or incidents of the same nature.”

“Lastly, I am asking that none of the above requested be modified, destroyed, damaged or lost,” says the letter sent to Palmer and former DSS attorney Scott Lindsay on Dec. 22, 2017. The civil suit is wending its way through a federal court in Asheville.

If any documents related to that case, or similar cases, have been destroyed on purpose, it could lead to federal charges, Chris Swecker, retired FBI assistant director and former chair of the N.C. Governor’s Crime Commission, told CPP earlier this year.

Swecker said such action would potentially draw federal charges of obstruction of justice and contempt of court in addition to state charges.

Because federal funds are involved in Department of Social Services activities, use of the CVAs could point to possible federal charges as well. In that case, destruction of related documents could constitute federal obstruction of justice on additional grounds.

Wijewickrama, a Waynesville attorney, said he has not heard from federal investigators but would welcome their involvement. He and several other attorneys represent families who were pressured by Cherokee County social workers into giving up their children via the CVAs.

“I am appreciative for any efforts any law enforcement agency makes in trying to assist any of the victims in this horrific event,” he told CPP last week.

Wijewickrama said the complex case spans decades and could involve hundreds of children — some of whom were placed out of state.

“I think the complexity of this investigation that we’ve uncovered requires substantial manpower and technical resources that are not otherwise available to traditional law enforcement,” he said.

Image of shredded documents
The Cherokee County Department of Social Services paid a contractor to shred a massive amount of documents in 2018, at the same time as a criminal investigation into unlawful child seizures. Photo illustration by Frank Taylor / Wmforo

Timeline of shredding

Despite the state court and federal civil suit orders not to destroy any child welfare files, shredding of DSS files increased through July 2017, when it reached its peak, according to county invoices CPP sought via public records requests.

Invoices obtained via public records request show that the shredding bill issued in July 2018 soared to $3,311.87 for emptying 73 64-gallon totes, more than seven times the volume of the already increased monthly shredding that had been underway since February 2018.

DSS board members at the time also had no idea staff members were preparing to shred so many documents.

According to former DSS board member Robert Merrill, the board wouldn’t have allowed it. “We would have said no to that,” Merrill told CPP in June.

“We understand there is going to be some bad legal implications of doing that. If we thought there was anything illegal, we would have said something.”

It is unknown whether any child welfare documents covered by the state and federal preservation orders were shredded.

Some relevant child welfare documents are known to be missing. During a court hearing, a former child welfare supervisor said the whereabouts of files from 2009 are unknown. Additional documents may be missing, which may include child welfare case files and day sheets, which record worker tasks completed related to specific child welfare cases.

Despite the denial of anything inappropriate being destroyed, the official explanation for why so much shredding occurred at precisely this time are problematic.

County officials and Palmer have said DSS was digitizing many documents and shredding the paper versions because of an urgent need for office space. As of July 2019, the space created by shredding so many documents, which DSS officials said was so urgently needed a year earlier, had not been put to any other use.

Cherokee County sheriff's squad car
A sheriff’s squad car parked outside the Cherokee County Detention Center in Murphy. Sheriff Derrick Palmer is married to former Cherokee DSS Director Cindy Palmer, who is the subject of a criminal probe. Colby Rabon / Wmforo

Federal versus state logistics

Trying Palmer by jury might be difficult in a community that continues to rally around her even after an investigation by state officials revealed serious problems with her management of the office.

If federal investigators have taken up the case and aim to bring it to trial, a jury from Asheville rather than in Murphy would decide the case.

When the DSS board suspended her, more than a dozen people wrote letters in Palmer’s defense, testifying to her good moral character and her strong work ethic. More than two dozen workers at the DSS office signed a letter and sent it to the DSS board to lobby for Palmer’s reinstatement.

Palmer is one of their own — a role model and a point of pride in this small rural county. She started working at the DSS office more than 20 years ago, from one of the lowest rungs, and worked her way to its highest post.

Her husband, Derrick Palmer, is the elected sheriff of Cherokee County. He appears on a weekly radio program on WKRK, where he has said he’s anguished over the investigations related to his office or his wife’s.

Sheriff Palmer’s jail is under separate state investigations related to the death of an inmate and allegations from former guards that some guards encouraged inmates to fight each other. A former jail guard is also facing a felony assault charge for kicking a restrained inmate in the face.

A move to an Asheville courtroom could mean the difference between a conviction by a panel of people who may not have heard of the Palmers and an acquittal in front of a sympathetic jury.

In March, Welch told CPP, “It is very hard to convince a jury in Cherokee County that someone is guilty of any crime.” That March interview with Welch was in the context of sexual assault cases, but she said her statement applies to many serious felonies, including sexual assault and murder.

Serious felonies were already alleged in the DSS case at the state level. According to minutes from a closed-door DSS board meeting in April 2018, the DSS attorney at the time, David Moore, told the board:

“The SBI is investigating, Ms. Palmer has been interviewed by them, and there could be felony charges filed. Mr. Moore said it appears that Ms. Palmer may have lied under oath about her knowledge regarding the CVAs. Because Ms. Palmer was the director of DSS, a lack of oversight could mean felony charges for her.”

An NCDHHS review said Palmer’s “ineffective leadership and management of the CCDSS has been central to the lack of competency in its child welfare division.”

The state took control of Cherokee County’s child welfare operations from DSS in March 2018 to get a handle of the problematic CVAs. Palmer continued to work there as director until the DSS board suspended her with pay the following month.

The following month, Moore said, “Ms. Palmer’s lack of oversight has cost the county tens of thousands of dollars.”

A far larger amount was calculated by DHHS months later for additional problems that likely had not come to Moore’s attention. The department’s examination of every open foster care case in Cherokee County — the first such complete audit of its kind of any county DSS office in the state — showed the county received more than $247,000 in federal foster care funding for which its cases did not qualify. The state and county paid the sum back during two months in 2018, according to DHHS.

One of Palmer’s attorneys, Hart Miles with Raleigh firm Cheshire Parker Schneider, told CPP last week that he is not aware of anyone at his firm who “has spoken to a federal agent or prosecutor,” and as of the deadline for this story, he has not been able to confirm whether Palmer has either. The firm does not represent the sheriff, he said.

Earlier this year, Miles said his client was cooperating with state law enforcement investigators.

The State Bureau of Investigation interviewed dozens of people last summer, many of them parents, over two days in June 2018 at Murphy High School. The investigation continued until earlier this year, when the agency handed its findings to Welch.

Welch said she briefly looked at the information, and after consulting with the state Bar Association, recused herself from prosecuting Palmer’s case because her office works often with sheriff’s deputies.

The case landed with the N.C. Department of Justice, which says the case remains under investigation.

Laura Brewer, spokeswoman for the NCDOJ, said in general, when federal law enforcement becomes interested in a matter the state is investigating, it becomes a joint investigation.

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Kate Martin was formerly lead investigative reporter for Wmforo. To contact our news team send an email to [email protected].

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