Cherokee County has agreed to pay $4 million to a woman who was unlawfully removed from her home when she was a minor by Department of Social Services employees who created and executed a fraudulent document that illegally separated dozens of families over nearly three decades.
The Dec. 6 settlement comes on the heels of a $4.6 million judgment against the agency in May for similar violations.
David Wijewickrama and Ron Moore of the Law Office of David Wijewickrama in Waynesville, Melissa Jackson of Waynesville, and D. Brandon Christian of Fayetteville represented the plaintiff, Molly Cordell.
Wijewickrama said that the county’s DSS overstepped its authority and violated due process rights in order to avoid judicial oversight and have the federal government foot the county’s bills.
“David Hughes, the social workers’ supervisor, said that the county’s lawyer … said that petitions are expensive,” Wijewickrama said. “Well, petitions for DSS cases are free—what’s expensive is the services you provide these children.
“Foster care accounts for 50 percent of the county’s budget expenditure. This was all so the county could save money.”
Molly’s biological father gained custody of her and her younger sister, Heaven, when their mother died unexpectedly in 2015, but the siblings began living with their grandmother.
It’s unclear why social workers later became involved, but court records show that DSS began investigating the alleged volatile relationship between Molly and her grandmother to determine the suitability of the living arrangement. After convincing the Cordells’ father to sign a “Custody Visitation Agreement”—an official-looking but bogus form conjured up by the agency—DSS removed the sisters from their home and placed them separately.
It’s unclear why Cordell’s father executed the CVA, but court records show that other plaintiffs were told that refusal to sign the form could result in court involvement, jail time, and the possibility that their children would be placed in foster care, never to be seen again.
Molly was sent to live with her brother in Alabama while Heaven remained in North Carolina. Molly returned to North Carolina when the Alabama school system wouldn’t recognize the CVA and refused to enroll her in school. She said that DSS, which hadn’t conducted a follow-up or welfare check, refused to assist in the situation.
At some point after rejoining her grandmother, an argument between them led to law enforcement involvement and further DSS intervention. According to the complaint, Molly was then placed with a friend’s parents who, rather than providing room and board, forced Molly to pay approximately $400 monthly for rent.
Despite never being presented to the court as an abused, neglected, or dependent child, Molly said that she was separated from her sister and other family who knew and loved her and forced to sacrifice her adolescence, leading to “sadness, pain, and emotional distress” that later manifested into numerous life difficulties. At no time did Cherokee County provide medical care or other services and benefits that would’ve been required had the lawful process of a court proceeding been undertaken, she asserted.
The case is the second of many lawsuits filed by families alleging that since 1999, Cherokee County DSS has coerced dozens of guardians and biological parents to sign a CVA to transfer custody without court oversight. According to court records, there is no evidence that CVAs have been used anywhere else in the state.
In May, a federal jury awarded $4.6 million to a father and daughter in connection with the scandal, which has generated national attention and federal criminal charges. Two DSS employees—former county attorney Scott Lindsay and DSS director Cindy Palmer—were indicted on several charges. Palmer has since pleaded guilty to felony obstruction of justice and is serving 12 months of unsupervised probation.
The status of Lindsay’s cases is unclear.
In March 2018, U.S. District Judge Tessa Sellers voided all CVAs, calling them actual and constructive fraud on behalf of Lindsay, Palmer, and other DSS employees, citing “gross irregularities” in the process used to obtain them and in the illegality of the CVA themselves.
That same month, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human services temporarily assumed leadership of child welfare services at Cherokee County DSS. Its investigation revealed a systematic lack of adequate training, supervision, and capacity to deliver appropriate services, even beyond the CVAs.
“There is a lot of work to be done to bring Cherokee County Department of Social Services into compliance with laws, policies, and appropriate child welfare services,” DHSS secretary Mandy Cohen wrote in a news release.
Sean Perrin of Womble Bond Dickinson in Charlotte, Patrick Flanagan of Cranfill, Sumner & Hartzog in Charlotte, and Mary Euler of McGuire, Wood, & Bissette in Asheville represented the defendants. Lawyers Weekly was unable to speak with defense counsel before press time.
Wijewickrama said that Heaven Cordell settled her suit for $450,000, and that 21 cases are still pending discovery scheduling orders and must be reported to the court by May 2. He said he hopes that the litigation results in more than just monetary awards.
“The case establishes constitutional rights for children to require judicial oversight for them to maintain their family unit,” he said.
Follow Heath Hamacher on Twitter @NCLWHamacher
SETTLEMENT REPORT — CIVIL RIGHTS
Amount: $4 million
Injuries alleged: Pain and suffering
Case name: Molly Cordell v. Cherokee County, Cherokee County Department of Social Services, et al.
Court: U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina
Case No.: 1:20-199
Judge: Martin Reidinger
Date of settlement: Dec. 6
Most helpful experts: Dr. Jesse Raley of Columbia, South Carolina
Insurance carrier: North Carolina Association of County Commissioners’ Liability and Property Pool
Attorneys for plaintiff: David Wijewickrama and Ron Moore of the Law Office of David Wijewickrama in Waynesville, Melissa Jackson of Waynesville, and D. Brandon Christian of Fayetteville
Attorneys for defendant: Sean Perrin of Womble Bond Dickinson in Charlotte for Cherokee County, Cherokee County Department of Social Services, Scott Lindsay, and Cindy Palmer; Patrick Flanagan of Cranfill, Sumner & Hartzog in Charlotte for Scott Lindsay; and Mary Euler of McGuire, Wood, & Bissette in Asheville for Cindy Palmer