A Multimillion-Dollar Settlement for a Young Woman Once Lost in the Shadow Foster System

Days after ProPublica’s investigation into shadow foster care, which told the story of a teenager who was made homeless after child protection workers illegally separated her from her family, North Carolina’s Cherokee County agreed to a $4 million settlement with 21-year-old Molly Cordell. Molly’s lawyers had sued the county for violating her constitutional due-process rights, and the trial was expected to begin in January.

Defense lawyers reached out to Molly’s attorneys within days of the Cherokee Department of Social Services receiving an email from ProPublica that included the findings from our reporting on her case; the lawyers said they were looking at resolution options ahead of their Dec. 7 pretrial hearing. The ProPublica story ran on Dec. 1 in collaboration with The New York Times Magazine. The following day, the defendants’ lawyers offered Molly $4 million. The parties filed a notice of settlement in federal court on Monday.

Our investigation examined “shadow” foster care, a practice in which child protection agencies encourage or pressure parents to send their children to live with relatives or family friends, who care for them outside of the support of the formal foster system. At least 35 states use hidden foster care, and many don’t abide by time limits on the informal family separations. Cherokee County, at the southwesternmost edge of North Carolina, had been using an extreme version: In addition to encouraging parents to sign over physical custody of their children, the department encouraged dozens of parents to sign over legal custody through a form called a “custody-and-visitation agreement,” which purported to effectively terminate their rights to their children. Legally, only a judge can make such a determination.

The Cherokee department moved Molly into this hidden system three separate times, starting at the age of 15. Molly had been suffering from suicidal thoughts and was deaf in her left ear; because she was in shadow foster care, she was not able to receive medical attention or mental health treatment. She did not have a legal guardian to sign for care, and she received no ongoing support from the department. When the department moved Molly and dozens of other children into hidden foster care, it closed their cases, stopped offering services and did not pay maintenance fees to their caregivers. (The department could not be reached for comment.)

ProPublica documented how forms of shadow foster care have gained traction across the country, incentivized, in part, by the cost savings to stretched agencies. “Money: that’s what this is all about,” said David Wijewickrama, one of Molly’s attorneys.

The lawyer Melissa Jackson discovered the practice in Cherokee County in December of 2017. When Jackson met Molly, several months later, the department had placed the teenager with a neighbor, who was not receiving any financial assistance to raise her. Molly, who was 17, was working 40-hour weeks at Hardee’s to rent a pantry off the neighbor’s kitchen.

“For the journey that Molly has endured, I have no words to describe the peace and comfort and recognition that she must be feeling right now,” said Wijewickrama, who represents Molly along with Jackson. “She will have time to build a family, to be a mother, to have joy, to have happiness. This money allows her to get on her feet and live again.”

“The settlement should be a wake-up call to every county in the country,” he added. “I would hope that every director of child-protection services in the United States would stop and have a day of training — to say a crisis occurred, this is the lesson learned, and we need to make sure this doesn’t happen on our watch and we need to make sure that if any of the factors are present, we address them immediately.”

Molly, for her part, was shocked to learn of the settlement. She hasn’t been able to afford to go to college; she was denied financial aid because she wasn’t in formal foster care. She said she was excited that she will now be able to provide for her son, who was born in October. She said: “He’s never going to have to worry.”

This is the third case that Jackson and Wijewickrama have resolved since filing lawsuits against the county in 2018. The Carolina Public Press, a nonprofit news organization, has covered the fallout from their case on behalf of a Cherokee County parent, Brian Hogan, in detail. In a federal trial this spring, a jury awarded Hogan and his daughter $4.6 million. Molly’s younger sister, Heaven Cordell, settled her case against the county for $450,000 in September.

“I hope that the jury verdict and these two settlements speak volumes to other departments around the country,” Jackson said. “There’s a constitutional right for a family to stay together, and that right needs to be protected by a court.”

Jackson, Wijewickrama and their legal team expect to bring at least 20 additional cases from Cherokee County to federal court.