The mood is grim. Few people in this tight community want to talk to an outsider about the death of 15-month-old Aubrey Littlejohn.
Here on the Cherokee Indian Reservation, kinship ties are strong and families are extended and extensive. It doesn’t matter that they might not have known or ever even seen the toddler: in this tribe of just more than 14,000 members, there is outrage. Anger. Hurt. Aubrey was one of their own, another branch of the close-knit tribal family tree.
“It’s just uncalled for,” said Lisa Owen, who works in a Cherokee Harley Davidson store. “As a parent myself, I think the well-being of the kids should be first and foremost on anyone’s mind. They’re our future, and if we don’t take care of them, nobody will.”
The Swain County Department of Social Services failed to remove the child from the home despite numerous complaints by caregivers that she was in an unsafe home and being neglected by her caregiver. (see related story)
The allegations have spawned outrage among members of the tribe.
“DSS should’ve stepped in and took care of that baby,” said Scotty Gunter, a clerk at a local auto parts store. “She would probably still be alive if they had.”
His coworker Willene Gross agreed.
“I feel like that baby’s death could’ve been prevented,” said Gross. “They [DSS] need to do more investigating into stuff like that.”
Swain County DSS Director Tammy Cagle said she and her staff are deeply saddened by Aubrey’s death.
Regina Rosario, the head of the Cherokee child-advocacy group Heart-to-Heart, said that she’s dismayed, but not entirely surprised.
“I knew one day it would come down to this, you know, one of ours dying, and you see now that it’s a mess,” said Rosario of the DSS system. “It’s gotten a little better but there’s still things that I think that they should be on top of.”
Tribal Council Member Terri Howard also expressed her sadness over the baby’s death, saying that she hoped social services and tribal government both would use this as an opportunity to reexamine their roles and responsibilities, and possibly make some changes.
“I am very saddened that this little girl lost her life,” said Howard. “It’s a tragedy that it had to come to this.”
As the investigation into Aubrey’s death and the alleged coverup at Swain County DSS continues, more discussions about how the system could be improved are likely to be stirred on the reservation and in surrounding counties. Although the issue has not formally been placed on this agenda for a tribal council meeting this Thursday, Rosario has pledged to bring up the issue in public comment, and Howard believes that others will be there to voice their outrage, too.