An interim director is now at the helm of the Swain County Department of Social Services, bringing to the table an impressive resume with a focus on child welfare.
“That was real important to us,” said Georgianna Carson, a newly appointed DSS board member.
Jerry Smith served as a DSS director for 25 years in three different counties, including a year as president of the North Carolina Social Services Association. He also worked as the director of a children’s home after retiring from DSS and has written two books about foster homes and orphanages.
Smith’s background in child welfare is notable given the controversy surrounding the embattled agency. He is stepping in for former director Tammy Cagle, who was put on administrative leave with pay during an investigation into the death of a Cherokee baby. DSS failed to remove the baby from her caretaker and later conspired to cover up their own negligence, according to law enforcement records.
Four of the five DSS board members are new following resignations of former board members in the wake of the controversy.
Smith’s past experience as a DSS director is also critical. He knows the intricacies of the agency — with its maze of state and federal funding formulas and stacks of manuals that prescribe state and federal laws and policies.
“He is going to be a real asset for Swain County,” Carson said.
Smith was brought on board just two days after Cagle was put on leave. County leaders already had been in contact with the state Department of Health and Human Services to help identify a candidate to take over the agency.
The DSS board can’t say when, or if, Cagle might return to her post, or how long Smith will remain in place.
“He is going to be here as long as we need for him to be. I feel for sure it will be several months,” Carson said.
The agency is conducting its own internal investigation independently of the SBI, according to Justin Greene, the attorney for Swain DSS. That internal investigation will presumably determine whether any employees should be disciplined or terminated.
For now the county is having to pay Smith’s salary on top of Cagle’s, who is only on administrative leave. The county has a contract with an executive staffing firm for Smith’s services at the rate of $60 an hour, a portion of which the firm likely keeps as commission. That translates to an annual salary of $124,000.
As for the SBI investigation, no one knows when it will end.
“There is no way for us to speculate how long the investigation may take,” said Jennifer Canada, a spokesperson for the N.C. Department of Justice. “Once it is complete, the SBI will turn over a report of its finding to the local district attorney for review. The DA will determine whether to file any charges.”
Carson said the death of the baby in January is a tragedy and needs a thorough and unbiased investigation, but it should not define DSS.
“Justice has got to be served, but at the same time we have got to mend fences,” Carson said. “I think people have gotten so focused on this one issue they have forgotten that this agency does so many things for the people of Swain County. We have so many good employees.”
Other DSS changes
Meanwhile, the chain of command for DSS Attorney Justin Greene will be altered. He will answer directly to the DSS board rather than the director. The SBI investigation and the turmoil leading up to Cagle’s suspension revealed the potential for conflicts of interest if Greene is under the director’s command.
The DSS board meets the last Monday of the month at 5:30 p.m. The old DSS board would only allow members of the public to speak if they requested to do so in writing two weeks prior to the meeting, and even then they could be turned down if their topic wasn’t considered fitting. While county commissioners and town boards are required by law to have public comment periods, appointed bodies like the DSS board are not.
Nonetheless, the new board has changed the policy and will allow anyone to speak up to five minutes.
“We know we are not elected officials, but at the same time we are there to serve the people of Swain County and we didn’t want to seem like we were being aloof or unable to be contacted if need be,” said Carson.
Who is Swain’s interim DSS director?
Jerry Smith has his masters in social work from UNC-Chapel Hill, considered among the best in the field nationally. From 1973 to 1997 he served as a DSS director in Washington and Wilson counties in North Carolina and Tazewell County in Virginia. He served as president of the N.C. Social Services Association in 1990. After retiring from DSS work, he was the director for two years at Holston Methodist Home for Children in Knoxville, Tenn., and has continued to provide services there as a trainer. He is the author of two books about foster homes and orphanages.