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Haywood County is moving slowly towards consolidating its Department of Social Services and Health Department to save money and become more efficient. 

Last year, the N.C. General Assembly approved legislation that allows counties to combine the two departments into one Department of Human Services. Previously, only Mecklenburg and Wake counties were allowed to have consolidated health and social services departments.

fr littlejohnA Swain County social worker pleaded guilty in court this week to doctoring and fabricating records two years ago following the death of a 15-month-old baby.

The number of children in foster care in Haywood County is on the rise, a depressing sign for Department of Social Services workers whose first goal is to keep a family together.

“Growing up in foster care or growing up in an institution is no way to grow up,” said Ira Dove, director of the county’s Department of Social Services. Dove presented his case to the Haywood County Board of Commissioners Monday, requesting additional money to pay for the increasing costs of running foster care.

fr lifeworksAs government aid shrinks and church groups step up to fill the void, the thin and sometimes fuzzy line between church and state has gotten even more complicated.

The mental health agency Smoky Mountain Center will not be buying and moving into Waynesville’s former Department of Social Services office building after all, leaving Haywood County back at Square One trying to unload the large, dated, four-story brick complex built decades ago as a hospital.

DSS had outgrown the space and moved into new offices in a renovated Walmart earlier this year. The center expressed an interest in buying the old office building earlier this month.

The agency had weighed uprooting its headquarters from Sylva and moving to Haywood County, taking with it 60 jobs. The primary motivation was finding a larger space to house an additional 100 jobs being added in the next two years as Smoky Mountain Center gears up to oversee a larger segment of mental health services.

But, the proposal received strenuous political pushback from Jackson County and leaders in the far-western counties concerned about potential job losses in their neck of the woods.

Brian Ingraham, area director for Smoky Mountain Center, and Shelly Foreman, who oversees planning and public affairs, emphasized that the agency merely had been exploring options when considering the old hospital in Haywood as a site for their expansion and new headquarters. But when that option was taken to Smoky Mountain Center’s board of directors last week, they ruled it out — to Haywood County’s obvious chagrin.

“Well, it is disappointing. But I do understand the situation,” said Bill Upton, a Smoky Mountain board member and Haywood County commissioner. “They were caught between a rock and a hard place. And there will be other opportunities for Haywood County.”

Haywood still stands to gain a slice of the new jobs Smoky Mountain Center will be adding, which could now be placed in several locations across its 15-county service area, Foreman said. Haywood could end up with a majority of those new jobs, while Jackson gets to keep its existing ones, Jackson County Commissioner Jack Debnam said.

The mental health agency is poised to morph into basically a public health insurance company for anyone who receives mental health, developmental disability or substance abuse services through Medicaid.

“The situation is fluid,” Ingraham said. “We have to adapt to that and plan for the best possible outcomes that we can.”

Ronnie Beale, a Smoky Mountain board member and Macon County commissioner, said “this wasn’t the time to be buying any property.”

Beale said the board vote was not unanimous, and that a strong argument was made that Waynesville is closer to Asheville, thereby increasing the applicant pool the agency can draw from for jobs.

Beale said that he doesn’t buy arguments that it will be more difficult to recruit workers into the far western counties than into Haywood County, which is better poised to draw on the workforce pool in neighboring Asheville.

“That’s part of the stigma is that you can’t hire people out here,” Beale said. “I think we can.”

As for what to do with the old hospital in Haywood County, Haywood County Manager Marty Stamey said the county would continue its marketing efforts.

More than a year has lapsed since 15-month-old Aubrey Kina Marie Littlejohn died on the floor of an unheated single-wide trailer in Cherokee one frigid January night, but it could be several more months before the state conducts a child fatality review required by law in such cases.

Swain County Department of Social Services alerted the state to the suspicious child death the day after Aubrey died in January 2011, but the mandatory case review hasn’t been started yet because of a statewide backlog. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services formally accepted the case for a child fatality review last April, but the review has not been scheduled yet, according to Lori Watson, a spokesperson for the state agency in Raleigh.

Ideally, a child fatality review can help prevent future tragedies. It is supposed to detect where social safety nets failed and whether there are cracks in the system that need fixing.

In Aubrey’ case, it seems there will be plenty to learn from such a review. Cops, neighbors, family members and social workers all came in contact with Aubrey’s caretaker and noticed red flags, from violent behavior and suspected drug use to poor living conditions and even visual signs of abuse.

The child fatality review is not intended to find fault, nor is it a witch-hunt to hold anyone responsible, Watson said. The state in particular is interested in whether new policies or protocols could have saved the child’s life.

It is a learning exercise that taps the insight of anyone who may have interacted with the child — teachers, daycare workers, pediatricians, friends, family and social workers — to determine what could be done differently in the future.

“They will bring all those people together that had been involved in that child’s life,” Watson said.

By design, the case review isn’t conducted on the heels of a child’s death.

“They try to plan them so they give the community an opportunity to heal and people can come back to the table and take an objective approach to looking at the case,” Watson said.

But, a year and counting is longer than it should be in an ideal world. It could be several more months yet before it is conducted.

Watson said the agency is facing a backlog of its child fatality reviews. Watson cited staff turnover and unfilled positions at the state level as reasons the agency got behind.

The child fatality review will likely determine why social workers had forcibly removed other children from the home where Aubrey was living but allowed Aubrey to stay. Social workers had documented inappropriate use of physical discipline against Aubrey when she was just a year old. In addition to bruises on Aubrey, there were also signs she wasn’t developing like a baby of her age should, but she was not being taken to the doctor for check-ups.

Cops had been to the residence multiple times, according to dispatch records. Neighbors witnessed violent behavior in the yard of the home and noted children fending for themselves.

 

Swain DSS records in baby’s death to remain sealed

Prosecutors in a second-degree murder and felony child abuse case in Swain County have sealed social service records for fear they could compromise the on-going investigation or the ability to prosecute the case.

Prosecutors have told the Swain County Department of Social Services not to release records that would normally be made public surrounding the death of 15-month-old Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn, who died more than a year ago. Ladybird Powell, Aubrey’s great-aunt and caretaker, was charged in connection with her death this month.

Since DSS records are highly personal — often revealing private aspects of family life, emotional state and financial status — they are all confidential.

There is an exception, however, when criminal charges surround a child’s death. In such cases, DSS is supposed to release a summary of the agency’s involvement with the child, describing whether social workers had the child’s well-being on their radar and what steps, if any, were taken to investigate or improve the child’s safety and care.

The district attorney’s office has the authority to block the release of the records if it is deemed a risk to the criminal case, however.

In this case, the prosecutor has done just that, citing the highly unusual circumstances of a separate yet parallel case against two social workers. The workers allegedly falsified records following the child’s death, presumably to conceal whether the agency properly followed up on complaints of abuse and neglect, according to a State Bureau of Investigation probe.

Whether social workers did their job or failed to intervene and protect Aubrey has been a source of heated and emotional controversy. The records, if released, would reveal whether social workers acted on reports of suspected abuse and neglect — assuming the records provide an accurate picture.

But releasing those records that describe DSS involvement in Aubrey’s case could compromise a fair trail in the separate case against the social workers, since their involvement — or lack of involvement — is at the heart of that case.

The release of records would “jeopardize the state’s ongoing investigation” and “jeopardize the state’s ability to prosecute” the case, the district attorney’s office told Swain DSS when blocking the release of the documents.

Hopes of turning the abandoned Haywood County social services building into low-income senior apartments have been dashed, leaving the county in a quandary over who else might want the building and what other uses it could have.

The county recently moved out of the massive, aging, five-story brick office building in Waynesville. The Department of Social Services had not only outgrown the building, but it was also deemed too dated and run-down to bother renovating.

A new life seemed to be in the cards for the building as a low-income senior apartment complex — but the $8.5-million project was contingent on lucrative tax credits to offset the expense of renovating the old office building. The county learned last week that the hoped-for tax credits have fallen through, and the project is off the table as a result.

Patsy Dowling, the director of the nonprofit Mountain Projects that was behind the plan, said the low-income housing is much needed in Haywood County. She said she is disappointed that the project was knocked out of the running for the tax credits.

“Our aging population is growing, and I thought it was a great thing to be proactive to meet the needs of the senior population in our community,” Dowling said.

County Commissioner Chairman Mark Swanger said the county is likewise disappointed — not only to fill a desperate need for low-income housing but because the county is left with a big, old building on its hands.

The tax credits for low-income housing projects are highly competitive. Only five to eight low-income housing projects in the mountain region will land the tax credits this year — out of more than 20 applications.

Mountain Projects withdrew its application for the old DSS building after realizing its score wasn’t high enough to make the cut. The other 26 applications it was up against all had perfect scores.

The downfall of the Haywood County project? It was too far from a grocery store or pharmacy — 0.7 miles instead of the required 0.5 miles.

“They are very strict about how close it is in proximity to major services,” said Dowling.

The old DSS office building was just short of the criteria, costing the project critical points on its application.

“It is not an equitable system,” Swanger said of the tax credit criteria. “It seems very arbitrary when you are looking at rural areas.”

Blueprints called for renovating the old DSS building into 54 apartments, with a mix of one- and two-bedrooms. The total project cost was $8.5 million, including cost of the property and construction.

The tax credits would have amounted to $6.7 million — dramatically lowering the total cost to just $2 million. Indeed, that’s what made the project feasible. The developer partnering with Mountain Projects to do the project would have a very small mortgage in the end, allowing them to charge lower rents.

“The project doesn’t work without the low-income credits,” said Hollis Fitch, president of Fitch Development, a low-income housing developer based in Charlotte.

Fitch works across the state and regularly taps the low-income housing tax credit pool.

“It is a competitive process,” Fitch said.

Fitch’s group had put more than $60,000 into the design and planning for the Haywood project, including blueprints.

After Fitch and Dowling realized they were up against 26 projects with perfect scores — leaving no hope of snagging one of the five to eight slots — Dowling withdrew the application to save on the $5,000 non-refundable application fee.

While Mountain Projects could theoretically apply again another year, Dowling doesn’t anticipate the competition will getting any easier.

With the building not getting any closer to a grocery store, it is hard to see how it would ever land the tax credits needed to pull off the project.

“The building is where it is. We can’t move it any closer,” Swanger said. “Unless there is a dramatic change in the way in the North Carolina Housing Authority ranks its points, the chances would be remote.”

Indeed, getting that criteria changed is the only hope of jump--starting the project at this point. Swanger said he plans to take the issue up with state legislators.

 

Going once, going twice?

For now, the 70,000-square-foot building is officially for sale, with a price tag in the neighborhood of $1.25 million.

That’s what the developer working with Mountain Projects was going to pay the county, Swanger said.

The central offices for Haywood County Schools are still located in the building but would move out if and when it sells.

Typically, the county would sell property to the highest bidder. But, it doesn’t necessarily have to. The county could opt to sell it for a lower price to a nonprofit entity if it would in some way serve the public interest, as was the case with the sale to Mountain Projects.

Likewise, the county does not want to sell it to someone who will simply park on it as an investment.

“There would be a due diligence on our part to make sure that it is to a responsible party who will not allow it to just deteriorate and become an eyesore or safety hazard,” Swanger said. “You also don’t want someone to buy it at a very low price just to flip it.”

Obviously, the price tag to buy the property would only be part of the necessary investment from a buyer. Almost any use would require renovations.

Of the $8.5 million projected estimated cost to pull off the low-income apartments, $5.3 million was for construction, Fitch said.

The building was originally constructed as a hospital. The layout — long hallways lined with dozens of tiny rooms — isn’t conducive to many uses without major renovations. Age isn’t exactly on its side either. Part dates to 1927 and the rest to the 1950s — a whopping 72,000 square feet in all.

And, the building isn’t in the best shape either. Its sheer antiquity aside, the county scraped by on its maintenance during the years, spending the bare minimum to keep the building from falling into disrepair — but no more.

Now that it is mostly empty, a county maintenance worker is making twice-daily rounds through the building to make sure there are no water leaks, broken windows, varmints or vandals. The county has kept the utilities on. It can’t shut off the water since the school system is still occupying the front portion of the building. The heat is also being kept on, albeit at a cool 48 degrees, to avoid building shock from wild temperature fluctuations.

“To let it deteriorate further is something we would like to avoid,” Swanger said.

In hindsight, the county hasn’t exactly been the best cheerleader for the building. County commissioners repeatedly talked up the building’s short-comings when debating whether to move out.

The county relocated DSS to a repurposed office complex inside the former Walmart.

 

Haywood County in the real estate business

The old DSS building isn’t the only former office complex Haywood County government is trying to unload. County Manager Marty Stamey joked that it seems like he has a part-time job as real estate agent these days.

After moving several county departments once spread out in three separate office buildings under one roof at the repurposed former Walmart strip mall, the county is now looking to sell the three office complexes.:

• Annex II (board of elections/planning department): $1 million

• Annex III (health department)/annex III: $1.5 million

• Board of elections/planning department/ annex II: $1 million

• Former DSS (old hospital): $1.25 million

The buildings known as annex II and III on the Old Asheville Highway were originally medical offices, but when the old hospital moved out of its former building, doctors likewise moved their practices closer to the new hospital.

An audit of REACH of Jackson County’s finances received by the nonprofit’s board last month show the money situation had become even more dicey than was previously made public.

The agency, which worked with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, shut down last week amid accusations of internal financial irregularities. Jackson County women and children seeking help from abusive situations are now reliant on other counties’ agencies to provide services and emergency shelter.

What primarily triggered the sudden closure was the nonpayment of payroll taxes for three quarters in 2011 to the Internal Revenue Services. The board last week fired the agency’s executive director and finance officer. The seven remaining employees were laid-off.

The audit, reviewed this week by The Smoky Mountain News, reportedly played a huge role in the board’s decision to pull the plug on the 33-year organization. Here were some of the findings of the financial review, which was dated Dec. 28 and prepared by the Waynesville firm of Gahagan, Black and Associates:

• The organization lost $128,216 in net assets for fiscal year 2010-2011.

• At the time of the financial review, REACH’s assets totaled just $58,104, but the agency had current liabilities of $200,863. That included long-term debt totaling $100,789 and unpaid payroll taxes of $76,752 (that number continued to climb, totaling about $81,000, including penalties, by the time the agency closed).

• The situation was so dire the amount of assets held by REACH couldn’t even cover its temporarily restricted obligations of $10,295. These are funds restricted in use, with dollars required to be spent in a certain timeframe or be spent for specific purposes only.

“These conditions make it uncertain as to whether the organization will be able to continue as a growing concern,” the auditors noted.

 

End was quick following audit release

In an interview last week, fired REACH Executive Director Kim Roberts-Fer said she waited to tell the board about the payroll tax issue until receiving the results of this audit. Roberts-Fer indicated she’d learned about the IRS problem in October. She said that she’d been in contact with the federal agency to try to work out a payment plan.

Roberts-Fer said her delay in relaying what was happening to the nonprofit’s overseeing board was justified because she wanted to give board members a complete picture of the situation, one that included solutions. Roberts-Fer said she had successfully worked out a compromise with the IRS that would have enable REACH to continue serving the community.

REACH’s board still hasn’t made any public comment except for the release of a small, prepared statement last week expressing their regrets over closing the agency.

But the auditor’s findings, coupled with the sudden appearance of an IRS agent who demanded personal financial information from board members, clearly influenced the decision to finally end the protracted death writhing of the virtually financially insolvent group.

According to Roberts-Fer, fired Finance Director Janice Mason was working within a financial system long in place at the agency. Mason has declined to comment through her former boss.

The auditor noted the following “client response” to the issue of the nonpayment of IRS payroll taxes: “The client was unaware of how to classify expenses through the accounts payable function and wrote the checks to classify expenses.”

 

A crisis agency in crisis

REACH’s financial practices encompassed monkeying around with paying various bills because of an ongoing funding crisis that had threatened the agency’s survival for two years. The agency put off paying payroll taxes in hopes of catching up but instead fell more and more behind.

The root of the problem started before then, however. REACH in 2001 opened a $1.1-million transitional-housing complex for victims trying to escape abuse. It was a questionable financial venture from the get-go: The nine-apartment village could not actually generate the funds to pay the loans, much less keep pace with general repairs and upkeep. The loan amount owed was $840,074.

The REACH village went into foreclosure. Recently control of that housing complex shifted to Mountain Projects, a nonprofit that administers programs to benefit the needy and elderly in Haywood and Jackson counties.

The IRS put a lien on the property in early February because of REACH’s nonpayment of taxes. That almost boogered up last week’s scheduled transfer to Mountain Projects. But, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (which was one of the original loan makers to REACH) persuaded the IRS to knock the $81,000 down to $51,000. REACH has agreed to be responsible for that debt if Mountain Projects would go through with taking over the property title.

Additional questions surfaced this week about whether REACH would even have been able to apply for and receive federal and state grants anymore since the agency both defaulted on a government loan and failed to pay the IRS. An estimated 90 percent of the nonprofit’s funding base was dependent on grant money.

 

Macon bailing out Jackson

In the short term, which could mean at least a couple of years, REACH of Macon County will provide services in Jackson County, including key legal services for domestic violence victims. The agency has been given a temporary office and phone at Jackson County’s social services department.

“It has seemed fairly seamless at this point,” said Ann VanHarlingen, executive director of REACH of Macon County. “We realize that Jackson County and the people of Jackson County will devise a system by which they will take this project back over; we also realize this is a process, not an event.”

REACH of Macon County expects to move into more permanent office space in Sylva March 1. That nonprofit will provide three staff members to Jackson County to ensure a continuation of services, said Andrea Anderson, director of client services for REACH of Macon County.

“The debt of gratitude the people of Jackson County owes REACH of Macon County is quite large right now,” Jack Debnam, chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, told VanHarlingen and Anderson during Monday’s commission meeting.

For now, victims fleeing abusive homes will be housed in emergency shelters in Haywood, Macon or Swain counties. That could change, however. Bob Cochran, director of the Jackson County Department of Social Services, said Mountain Projects via Patsy Dowling has offered Jackson the free use of the old emergency shelter in the former REACH Village.

VanHarlingen told Jackson County commissioners that it requires 18 to 24 months to fully setup a nonprofit agency to serve victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Cochran said in an interview with The Smoky Mountain News that “the dust needs to settle” before the community can chart its best course of action.

“It is still early in determining the status and the final outcome of the current REACH,” Cochran said. “We hope there will be some assets left that can be used toward a rebuilding process.”

Given the audit findings, that scenario seems increasingly unlikely.

In addition to not paying the IRS, REACH failed to pay several months rent for the space housing its thrift store. A lien seeking payment on back rent has been filed with the Jackson County Clerk of Court, and there is the possibility of more creditors seeking payment. Also, some of the employees of REACH are owed back pay.

Asked if Jackson County wouldn’t be better served by simply eliminating REACH and starting anew with a different name and no baggage, Cochran responded that he couldn’t answer that question yet.

“I don’t know. I think that conversation has yet to take place,” he said.

Caron Swayney knew better than to torture herself, but still she occasionally found herself drawn to the trailer park where the cold, limp body of her 15-month-old niece was discovered dead in the middle of the night last January.

“I would go down there and just sit in the driveway and just look at that trailer and cry,” Swayney said. “It just seems like it is never going to end.”

The year since the death of Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn has been trying and emotional for her extended Cherokee family. When Swayney participated in a ceremonial sweat lodge at the start of the new year, she had one wish.

“I asked everyone to pray for the family that this year would start off better than what it did last year and that we would get the answers we had been waiting for for a year,” said Swayney, Aubrey’s great-aunt. “We kept wondering when something was going to happen.”

Last week, something finally did.

Ladybird Powell, who was caring for Aubrey at the time of her death, was arrested on numerous charges last Friday in connection with Aubrey’s death, including second-degree murder and felony child abuse. Powell is being held on $1 million bond.

“This has been one of the hardest cases that we have had to investigate, primarily because of the age of the child. As a parent, it is hard to imagine any child being taken away at such an early age,” Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran said in a statement.

An autopsy revealed numerous recent bruises on Aubrey’s body and past evidence of a fracture. It found the nature of Aubrey’s death was consistent with hypothermia but could not conclusively determine that it was indeed the cause of death.

Family members say Ladybird’s trailer did not have heat. When Aubrey’s lifeless body was brought into the emergency room the night of her death, her core body temperature was a low 84 degrees, and she was dressed in only a T-shirt and dirty diaper.

Witnesses have said Aubrey was not properly cared for by Ladybird and that on the day of her death she had been strapped in a car seat for 12 hours and hardly fed.

Aubrey’s mother, Jasmine Littlejohn, had asked Ladybird to care for Aubrey temporarily while Jasmine served time in jail. When Jasmine got out of jail and tried to get her daughter back, Powell refused unless Jasmine paid her several thousand dollars, according to family.

Kidnapping and extortion are among the charges filed against Powell. She also faces drug charges, including possession of methamphetamines, for drugs and paraphernalia confiscated from the trailer the night of Aubrey’s death.

The family was relieved to get word of the charges last week, particularly Aubrey’s mother, Jasmine.

“She knows it won’t bring Aubrey back, but like everybody else, she wants the people held responsible for her child’s death,” said Henrietta Littlejohn, Aubrey’s grandmother.

Cochran said that while it has taken a year to build the case, it has been a top priority of the sheriff’s department.

“There has been a great expression of concern from Aubrey’s family members, and we want everyone in Swain County to know that we have never stopped working on this case,” Cochran said, crediting the work of Detective Carolyn Posey in particular.

The family knows the charges are just the first step, however, in what could be a difficult and protracted court battle, one that will mean reliving baby Aubrey’s death over and over. Henrietta is trying to brace her daughter, Jasmine, for what’s to come.

“It could get nasty, and it could get ugly, so she is going to have to prepare herself. We all are,” said Henrietta Littlejohn.

David Wijewickrama, an attorney who has been acting as an advocate for Aubrey’s family in seeking justice, said he was pleased by the charges.

“I want to applaud the district attorney’s office for pursuing the case with diligence and not letting it slip through the cracks,” Wijewickrama said.

 

Charges expected this week in social service’s alleged cover-up

While the caretaker of 15-month-old Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn has been charged in connection with her death last year, the case is not exactly closed.

Still pending is whether Swain County social workers will face charges for an alleged cover-up following the baby’s death. The State Bureau of Investigation conducted a 10-month probe into whether social workers falsified records in an attempt to cover up potential negligence on their part.

Aubrey’s family say they warned social workers numerous times that Aubrey was not safe in the home of Ladybird Powell. Social workers even removed other children from the home but left Aubrey there.

Charges stemming from the SBI investigation into the Department of Social Services are expected this week. See www.smokymountainnews.com for updates in the case.

Finishing on time and on budget, the Haywood County Department of Social Services and several other government offices will move from their deteriorating, cramped homes to the renovated former Walmart by mid-January.

The Walmart shell was purchased and renovated at a cost of about $12 million to house a host of county offices: the Department of Social Services, the health department, planning department, building inspections, environmental health services and Meals on Wheels kitchen.

Construction will be finished by Nov. 24, according to Dale Burris, the county facilities and maintenance director. But it will take another eight weeks to get some 200 employees moved in and their offices up and running, he said.

“We are very pleased with the progress,” said Mark Swanger, chair of the Haywood County Commissioners. The Walmart renovation is the “smoothest project I’ve been involved in,” he said.

The county commissioners Monday approved a request for additional funding — about $32,400 — to move furniture into the building once renovations are complete. The money will come out of the county’s general fund.

Between 55 and 65 subcontracted construction workers are on the job each day, Burris said. And, although there were a few hitches, as is usual with such projects, the contractor was able to identify and remedy any problems, he said.

The project stayed within the original estimated cost of between $12 million and $12.5 million.

The county purchased the building for $6.6 million. Construction costs totaled $5.48 million, Burris said.

The project included gutting the building, remodeling the entrance and replacing the old roof with new over-build, copper roof.

The roof “looks really good,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley. “It looks expensive” because of the copper coloring.

The commissioners voted in January 2010 to purchase and renovate the old Walmart building. The current DSS building had been deteriorating for years, and by that time had peeling paint, water leaks, hanging wires and an aging elevator — as well as cramped work conditions.

Purchasing land and building a new DSS and health department building would have cost between $25 million and $30 million.

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