Families in Crisis: Cherokee County DSS ignores state law, rips families apart

“Any time you have a significant number of vacancies; it gets very hard to maintain best practices,” said Robert Cochran, the acting director for Child Welfare, appointed by the state. (Photo Credit: WLOS Staff)

What the North Carolina Health and Human Service Department now calls illegal agreements let one mountain county take custody of a hundred kids from their parents.

According to court documents, the Cherokee County Department of Social Services ignored state law for decades, instead coercing and threatening parents into signing over custody using an agreement that falls outside law and state policy.

How does that happen?

A News 13 investigation found it was a lack of oversight, training and resources that led to the problems. Enough for the state director of Child Welfare Services to send an urgent letter in December warning all counties that private custody agreements are illegal.

Reuniting families split up by Cherokee County, won't be easy.

One parent's story

“Let's cut some copper,” Brian Hogan said.

It wasn’t that long ago that he started this new job, hoping to rebuild his life.

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As recycled pipe clamored to the floor, it echoed the uproar Hogan has experienced over the last two years.

“I know there are other families out there that didn't deserve it either. They just took advantage of people,” Hogan said, referring to Cherokee County DSS, which he said cut apart his family.

In a panic, two years ago, Hogan left his 10-year-old with a neighbor.

“I didn't abandon her. I had to take care of her dying momma,” Hogan said, breaking down in tears.

His wife spent four months recovering from a life-threatening heart attack in Mission's ICU hours away in Asheville.

“I'm sorry, it's really emotional. They said, ‘Brian, if you don't sign your daughter over to your father, the state's going to get her. You're not getting her back. It will be impossible for you to get her back,’” Hogan explained.

What's a CVA?

To rebuild his family, Hogan did what DSS told him to do and signed the CVA, or Custody and Visitation Agreement, they provided for him.

“It's the worst feeling, having something ripped from you like that,” said Shalees Greenlee, who know what Hogan’s gone through.

Greenlee said she got a similar ultimatum after DSS said her daughter was born addicted. Greenlee said that wasn't the case.

“If I did the CVA, that pretty much all it would be was like he (the biological father) had permission to take her to the doctor and all these other things and it wasn't a big deal,” Greenlee said.

Both CVA's bypassed courtroom oversight, which is illegal, according to the NC Department of Health and Human Services that oversees county DSS offices through Child Welfare Services.

“Things probably would have been a lot better if we did go in front of a judge, then I wouldn't be dealing with this issue,” Greenlee said.

Once a CVA was signed, cases were closed and no in-home evaluations or additional services were provided. That's according to testimony from Cherokee County DSS director Cindy Palmer during Greenlee's custody case.

Where did the CVA's come from?

During that testimony, Cherokee County DSS attorney Scott Lindsay was asked what was the origin of the CVA agreements?

Lindsay said, "It would have been 2010 or 2007, perhaps earlier. I just got a form or a copy from another attorney and we started using that or I started using that. And at some point, and I'm not sure at what point it was, I gave the form or the form was taken by a supervisor of someone at DSS, because they had the form themselves, because at some point they started sending forms to me with names and dates and already filled in."

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When Hogan wanted to end his agreement, DSS denied the request.

“Can we go get my daughter back," was the question Hogan posed to Cherokee County’s child welfare supervisor.

"He said, 'No, Brian, you can't get your daughter back. You got to take us to court and your father to court,’” Hogan said recounting the conversation.

The state takeover of Cherokee County DSS exposed a disregard for parents’ rights beyond the CVA's. News 13 went to the May Social Service Board meeting for answers.

“We would probably refer you to David Moore, the attorney,” Cherokee County DSS board chairperson Karen Kapehart said.

One board member also wanted to hear from the state how this could happen.

“The question is why?” the board member asked.

“Any time you have a significant number of vacancies, it gets very hard to maintain best practices,” said Robert Cochran, who was appointed acting director for Child Welfare Services by the state.

Cochran said it was also a lack of training for employees.

“That commitment to attend the training is a big piece of it,” Cochran said.

NC DHHS takes over investigation

The state identified 18 policies where Cherokee's practices were what officials called out of line. Among them, using interns to manage caseloads, when interns are prohibited from managing cases.

The report to commissioners indicated the county attorney couldn't call child welfare staff to testify because they had no evidence to support their decisions. The report also detailed several personal conflicts of interest were never referred to another county to handle.

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“The state's not doing their job or they would be on top of it,” Hogan said.

In an email, the state claims it provides on-site reviews that look at outcomes, review processes and practices and provide technical support to each county child welfare office.

If that's the case, Greenlee argues the CVA's should have been caught.

“How do they let something like this happen? How are you not careful enough to make sure and look at these things that they're doing and letting them go on, I don't ...” Greenlee said, her comments trailing off.

Between mid-December 2017 and when the state took over in February 2018, Cherokee County DSS failed to notify 29 families their CVA's weren't legally binding. The courts have since found more.

Buncombe County DSS retirees are reviewing those cases for the state.

“I feel so sorry for the children, it's awful,” Hogan said.

Hogan's now 12-year-old daughter has been reunited with her family. Greenlee is still fighting for custody. DSS is also still working to find other children affected.

Status of DSS employees

DSS attorney Scott Lindsay was terminated by the county. Former child protective supervisor David Hughes was placed on investigative leave but later resigned his position. Director for the Department of Social Services in Cherokee County Cindy Palmer was placed on extended leave through the end of May. Several other case workers have resigned. As of this month, Cherokee County has four vacancies in Child Protective Services and two in administration.

News 13 continues to dig into this issues, including the lack of training and the possibility of federal repercussions with all this.

The county is calculating how much it might have to repay the federal government for eight cases that were misclassified in what were described at the May board meeting as avoidable errors.

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