Bryson City has a new fire chief, after a police investigation spurred the ouster of long-term fire chief Joey Hughes last month.

Brent Arvey has been named as the new department head, replacing Erwin Winchester, the Swain County fire marshal who stepped in to temporarily fill the post after Hughes was fired.

Arvey is an 11-year veteran of the Bryson City Fire Department and rises to the top position from the post of 1st assistant chief, the second in command.

Though the department now has a leader at its helm, the controversy surrounding it has not subsided.

The Bryson City Police Department began an investigation into the firehouse and its finances in August, and preliminary results led the town board to fire Hughes as they continued to sort out the details.

The probe has now been turned over to the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, which will work with the district attorney’s office in the county to see if charges need to be filed.

“Due to the number of questions that were found, that’s why the SBI was called in to do this,” said Assistant Police Chief Greg Jones, who has led the investigation. “I thought we had enough discrepancies to call the district attorney and bring in the SBI.”

Not only was the investigation uncovering more questions, it was also becoming too unwieldy for Jones and the small, seven-member police department to manage on its own, while trying to simultaneously juggle regular patrols as well.

The only documents currently filed in the case are two search warrants for the fire department’s Friends of the Firemen and Ladies’ Auxiliary bank accounts. Though it would seem likely that these two accounts would take charitable donations on behalf of the department, neither is legally equipped to do so, lacking a 501-c3 designation that allows tax-deductible charitable donations.

It’s unclear what, exactly, is in the accounts and who controls them. As a town fire department, all money that comes in — even fundraiser returns and charitable donations — are supposed to come to the town for audit and allocation. But these two accounts, said Town Manager Larry Callicutt, have never been controlled by the town.

The battle between fire department and town did not start with this investigation. In June of last year, the town board voted to take a GMC Yukon away from the department, citing allegations that it was being put to improper, non-department use.

Then-chief Hughes maintained that he’d never been approached by the board concerning the truck, and said to the board and on the fire department’s Facebook page that it was used as a first responder vehicle.

Later in the year, a firefighter told the Smoky Mountain Times that he resigned his post in protest of the way the department’s finances were handled.

The county also got into a spat with the fire department over what it was paying for fire services.

Last week, the firehouse on Main Street was shuttered while local and state investigators inventoried and audited the equipment there. With that phase finished, the inquiry by the SBI continues, with no word yet on whether charges are forthcoming.

Food stamps and food pantry vouchers are finding their way into the farmers markets in Jackson and Swain counties, putting local produce into hands of the needy who are often quick to cut healthy, but more expensive, fresh fruits and veggies from their diets and budgets.

The Bryson City Food Pantry is in its second year of a program called Farm to Family, handing out $5 vouchers to the weekly Swain County Farmers Market. The initiative started with a surplus of funds that the food pantry needed to spend.

Because the pantry’s premises are pretty tight, it had never been able to offer produce before. There was no refrigeration for it.

So when the idea was floated that the money be put toward the farmers market, it seemed perfect.

“I mean, we could have given them vouchers to go to the grocery store and find produce,” said Renee Mulligan, who helped start the program, “but we wanted to support the local farmers.”

Mulligan now works for Cherokee Choices, a health program with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, but she used to be a cooperative extension agent, where she helped get the idea going.

For families who visit the food pantry, what they’re getting is dry or canned goods and many can’t afford to buy fresh produce.

“For health and disease prevention, it’s extremely important, but it’s also a matter of access in rural areas,” said Mulligan. “It’s important for them to have access to fruits and vegetables in a way that’s convenient.”

With that in mind, the food pantry gives out the vouchers on Friday, the same morning that the farmers market is open just down the street next to the old courthouse.

There, under a smattering of canopies, farmers and crafters set up to peddle their products each Friday in season.

Don and Belinda Carringer said that they’ve been pretty pleased with the new customers they’ve gotten through the program. They sell produce at markets in both Swain and Macon counties.

“We love the program because it’s great for us and it’s great for them, they get fresh produce,” said Don Carringer.

The vouchers are only good for fruits and vegetables, not fish, meat or other market wares like crafts.

Carringer said his patrons with vouchers seemed happy to be able to get their farm-fresh produce, and Belinda said that she often provides recipes to voucher customers, giving them ideas on using what they’ve just bought.

That’s another problem that’s plaguing the country’s low-income families.

“People who aren’t used to having those kinds of things in their diets might not know what to do with those or how to prepare them,” said Amy Grimes, executive director of the Community Table in Sylva.

Her organization has a garden worked by volunteers who give a third of its bounty to the Community Table, which shares the yields with clients who come to them in need of food.

Now, they’re also taking donations from the Jackson County Farmers Market, where vendors can deposit their unsold produce that might otherwise be on the compost pile at the end of a selling day.

The Community Table is working the fresh food into the hot meals it serves, as well as packing it in the boxes sent home with locals strapped for food.

Grimes said she’s seen an increase in interest from her clients in the produce, and in learning how to prepare and serve it.

She hopes that by next year, she’ll have classes running to teach those skills.

Whether it was on the old-school food pyramid or its more modern, streamlined offspring the food plate, we’ve learned since childhood that fruits and veggies are foundational for a healthy diet.

The plates of the needy, however, are far less likely to play host to leafy greens and other garden bounty.

Earlier this year, the USDA released a study that proved what community workers like Grimes have seen firsthand: the closer a family comes to the poverty line, the less they spend on fruit and vegetables.

Americans who make 300 percent more than the federal poverty level — that’s around $66,000 for a family of four — will spend about 50 percent more on fresh produce than families at or just above the poverty line.

“It’s stuff that’s pretty expensive to buy in the store,” said Grimes. “I mean, avocados are two for $5 now.”

Besides what it’s sending to the Community Table, the Jackson County Farmers Market is also opening another option to people who perhaps couldn’t ordinarily afford its local, organic fare.

After a multi-year effort, the Jackson market will soon be able to accept food stamps. An EBT machine, which reads the electronic debit cards issued to food stamp recipients, will be set-up at the market.

“It’ll provide an avenue for people who need it to be able to purchase fruits and vegetables that are fresh and local,” said Jenny McPherson, who manages the Jackson County Farmers Market.

In Swain County, the voucher program is proving to be a win-win for all parties, said Christy Bredenkamp, the extension horticulture agent who is running it in partnership with the food pantry.

“We’re worried about food security in Swain County and really in Western North Carolina. There’s a lot of people who are really struggling financially and the quality of their food is really not as good, so this is a way for them to get fresh produce that’s more healthy for them,” said Bredenkamp. “And the vendors like it because it’s extra income for them, and they’re tapping in to customers they wouldn’t otherwise do.”

In just the first year, they handed out nearly 600 vouchers, and 73 percent were actually used. Similar, federally funded farmers market programs only had a redemption rate of around 60 percent, said Mulligan, who considers the program a success.

In its second year now, organizers hope it will continue to support local growers, who took home an extra $2,150 last year from the vouchers. They’re currently looking for other sources of funding to keep the program going in the future.

There are a lot of things associated with the words “high school football.” Three-a-days. Pep rallies. Weight rooms. The quarterback sneak.

Summer reading club isn’t usually one of them.

Coach Sam Pattillo, however, would beg to differ. He is the head football coach at Swain County High School, and every one of his players has been in a summer reading group for the last three years.

He’s not just going along with a program that someone else came up with, either. The reading was his idea, and he’s the one pushing it with his players.

“It’s building that relationship with our teachers and [the] expectation that academics is first, athletics is below that,” said Pattillo. He wears a lot of other hats at the small school, but he’s known first, at school and in the larger community, as the football coach, and a good one. The students respect him and that’s helped in getting them on board with the unorthodox program.

“Males tend to process things differently, and we tend not to take the time to read like we should,” said Pattillo. “We started it in order to put a focus on literacy and to establish some value for reading. It’s all before school starts, and basically a part of that too is to get them started thinking about school, being together as a team going through this process.”

In the summer before practices begin, the players are given books and Kindle e-readers to get a jump on the material.

The coaches read the books with the boys, and they get helmet stickers for doing well in the program, just as they would for making crucial plays or excelling in practice.

On the reading end of the program is Dawn Gilchrist-Young, the head of Swain High’s English department.

She’s in charge of the books, the post-reading questions players answer and the discussion groups they have after.

The success of the program, she said, is somewhat hard to gauge. One of the defining characteristics of a high school is that the population is different every year. So with new kids always moving in and out, pinning down how much good extra summer reading is doing is a bit tough.

But the message the program sends, she said, is a success in itself.

“Since football gives Swain County something to kind of hang its hat on, having the football team do a summer reading program tells the whole county about what we’re doing here,” said Gilchrist-Young.

The idea being that if Swain is a football county, it’s significant to have the football team saying it’s a reading county, too.

“What you’re saying is academics are important and it’s what will see you through.”

Both coach and teacher say they’ve seen a positive response from the players, even if some are reluctant at first. And, Pattillo points out, this is not what’s normally on the menu for high school football practice.

“It actually is a paradigm change, because it’s not all football,” he said.

“It’s a big deal to ask a kid who is not necessarily interested in taking AP [advanced placement] classes to do summer reading,” adds Gilchrist-Young.

By now, they’re accustomed to what’s coming in July. The second year of the program, the chosen book — Friday Night Lights — was requested by a few players who said they’d like to read it.

While the immediate goal of the program was to get books into the hands and minds of more students, the end game is a broader, more macro approach.

What’s the final goal, asks Gilchrist-Young?

“That all of our students go to Ivy League schools and then come back and commit themselves to the betterment of Swain County,” she said, smiling. “Or another ideal would be that they read to their children, love the tradition, have a kid on their lap at night, reading a book.”

That long game is an approach being taken by not just one teacher and one coach, but by the school system as a whole.

That’s where Steve Claxton comes in. As the community schools coordinator, one of the things in his charge is promoting reading in schools.

“We thought, ‘Well, how early can we start?’” said Claxton. The answer:  “Well, when they’re born.”

The school system partnered with Harris Regional Hospital in Sylva, where most Swain County families go to have their babies. Now, every Swain County child born in that hospital goes out into the world with a book.

The system is using the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, a program founded by the buxom country beauty to increase childhood literacy.

Through the program, the brand new babies leave the hospital with their own copy of children’s classic The Little Engine That Could, and they’re then mailed a book a month for the first four years of their life.

By the time they get to kindergarten, Swain County’s 2030 graduating class will all have a personal library that’s 60 books strong.

For kids who were born a little too early to catch that train from birth, the school system went into preschools around the county and offered the program to families.

This year, it cost a little more than they anticipated, around $8,000.

“We have 467 preschoolers in our county, and they [the program organizers] said to expect about 50 in the first year,” said Claxton. But they had 277 sign up. “We’re already halfway through our entire preschool population.”

They also bring high school students into preschool classes as readers, promoting literacy in students on both ends of the educational spectrum.

In addition to building libraries for preschoolers, the school system is giving parents the tools to know what to do with them.

They’ve produced two brochures — one for supermarkets and one for hiking trips — that teach parents how to make reading a part of both situations with their little ones. They’re also working with families who might not be able to read to their children, to foster early reading skills and help parents’ reading abilities, too.

“We have parents in this county who are illiterate. They can’t read to their kids. So we work with our siblings,” said Claxton. “They can take a book home that’s age appropriate for their siblings so they can read to them at night. That’s helping both kids.”

Most of these programs have only been going for a few years, but with the aggressive stance the schools are taking on reading, Claxton, Gilchrist-Young and Pattillo are hoping they’ll prove their value in the smarter more literate kids walking out the school’s doors. The programs are designed not only to get kids reading today, but to imbue them with a love of reading for years to come.

Swain County should finally have a budget by early August, nearly six weeks after the start of the new fiscal year.

Commissioners passed an interim budget to keep the county running over the summer, one of only two counties in the state that didn’t pass a full budget by the July 1 deadline.

That, said County Manager Kevin King, was because he was waiting on the state to adjust what the county is due under a new formula for Medicaid reimbursement. The formula was tweaked recently, and the state and county had to work through exactly how much Swain should get.

After the adjustments, which should be in by mid-August, King expects the county to get a few hundred thousand extra dollars.

Because the deficit would be too great to make up out of the county’s savings, King said he was forced either to wait and hope for the Medicaid money or propose county layoffs or a tax hike.

He chose to wait.

With the numbers now in, commissioners this week got their first look at the proposed 2011-12 budget, which will take effect in September.  

If commissioners approve the budget on August 8, the county will have $14.9 million to work with, up $2.5 million from last year’s budget.

The increase is going to two building projects on the county’s to-do list this year: new classrooms at West Elementary School and the construction of the Swain County Business Education and Training Center on Buckner Branch.

The property tax rate will stay the same, despite the additional spending. The school project is being paid for out of a capital reserve fund where savings had been set aside for school construction.

The training center, a joint effort by Southwestern Community College, the Fontana Regional Library, Swain County Schools and the county, is being underwritten by a $1.1 million grant from Duke Energy.

The elementary school upgrade is coming from a capital reserve fund set aside for school improvements suggested by a committee last year.

Otherwise, the budget is nearly identical to last year’s numbers, but the county will have to take a $158,000 dip into its fund balance to come out with a balanced budget.

That, said King, is because the county has suddenly lost around $300,000 in revenue it has counted on for years from the Tennessee Valley Authority.

As a government entity, TVA doesn’t pay property taxes, but does make “payments in lieu of taxes” for Fontana Dam and its generators. A new formula for the payments has drastically reduced what Swain historically got and diverted the money to Graham County instead.

That’s affected their fund balance too. The county was chastised in 2009 by the Local Government Commission for letting the fund balance, essentially the county’s savings account, dip too low. State law mandates that the account be at a minimum of 8 percent of the county’s annual budget, equivalent to one month’s expenses.

“Last year it was at about 13 percent,” said King. “But we’ve had decreases in our TVA [revenue], so it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of about 10 percent.”

He said he’s not yet certain of the exact numbers, since he is expecting some payments to the county’s accounts soon that will change the account’s balance.

The bottom line, though, is that revenues are down. And unless expenditures start dropping with them, the county must keep returning to the prospect of raiding its savings.

Currently, Swain is taking Graham County to court over the lost TVA monies. King said they hope to have their money back within a year. But Graham has filed a suit of its own, so the legal entanglements might not be so easy to sort out.

The proposed budget will be available at the Swain County Administration Building until Aug. 8, when commissioners will host a budget hearing and then vote on the document.

Swain County social workers in charge of protecting children are paid less and handle more cases than those elsewhere in the state and region, factors that likely contribute to a higher-than-average turnover.

Swain’s Department of Social Services has been plagued by the loss of child welfare workers. It was chronically short staffed for much of last year — seven child welfare workers left over a nine-month period.

Each time one quit, the ones who remained had to pick up the pieces. Their work load increased. Cases were handed off midstream. The number of new hires in the ranks — lacking any formal training or education in the field — only made matters worse.

It was in this climate that the case of Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn slipped through the cracks. Despite repeated warnings from relatives that baby Aubrey was being mistreated and neglected, social workers failed to intervene.

When Social Worker Craig Smith finally paid Aubrey’s caregiver a visit last September, the caregiver chalked up bruises on the baby to a fall down the stairs.

Smith told her to take the baby in for a physical exam. But the doctor’s exam never happened. Smith either forgot, or was too busy to follow up. And four months later, Aubrey died alone on a mattress on the floor in the back room of a single-wide trailer in a case that has sparked far-reaching outrage and sympathy.

Smith has since admitted falsifying records to hide potential negligence and failures by the agency, according to law enforcement documents. He claims the orders to do so came from his superiors, and that knowledge of the cover-up went all the way to the top.

Swain DSS is under investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation. Its director has been fired and the majority of its board members replaced.

On the heels of the scandal, the state Department of Health and Human Services launched its own competency review of Swain DSS in March. The state audited a random sample of 57 child welfare cases to determine if Swain DSS was properly protecting children.

The state’s evaluation raised a red flag over the “significant turnover” in the past year.

“Turnover does have an adverse effect on the functioning of the agency. Turnover results in social workers being stretched thin to cover the workload of vacant positions,” according to the state review.

Furthermore, supervisors in charge of training new hires were not fully qualified to be in management roles, according to the report.

Smith, ironically, was not one of the many new hires at Swain DSS. He had been with the agency for four years.

But he was not untouched by the ripple effect of high turnover each time someone around him left.

“That person’s workload gets distributed among the survivors,” said Evelyn Williams, a clinical associate professor at the UNC School of Social Work.

Even once a replacement is found, the more experienced social workers often continue to shoulder a disproportionate case load, including the more difficult or complex cases — all the while trying to help the new workers learn the ropes.

The loss of a coworker can be more depressing than the sheer prospect of more work. Child welfare workers in a small agency can be tight knit and get depressed when they lose one of their own.

“It is really hard work to do. It is challenging work to do. It is emotional work to do,” Williams said. “Your coworkers become vital to your support system.”


Off the charts

Swain County’s extreme turn-over last year among child welfare workers is more than twice the average turnover in the state.

While worse off than other counties, Swain is hardly alone in its struggle. Statewide, 50 percent of child welfare workers quit within two years. Only 25 percent stick with it longer than five.

“It is not easy to keep and recruit qualified social workers,” said Bob Cochran, director of Jackson County DSS. “It is not an easy job. It can be very stressful.”

Swain DSS has been fighting abnormally high turnover for years.

The caseload carried by Swain’s child welfare workers, even when fully staffed, is higher than other counties.

But its lower salaries are most often blamed as the culprit, as the prospect of better pay in surrounding counties lured staff away.

“The agency has historically provided training to new staff who then move on to better paying jobs,” Swain DSS leaders asserted in 2009 in a “self-assessment” included in the state’s performance review that same year.

It’s a point few could argue.

“Poor counties have difficulty holding good workers,” agreed Ira Dove, director of Haywood County DSS.

But salary is not everything. Social workers who are fulfilled in their jobs are more likely to stick with it.

And that’s where smaller DSS agencies in rural counties should have an advantage.

“Smaller counties have this wonderful work environment to offer,” said Evelyn Williams, a clinical associate professor at the UNC School of Social Work. “The director probably knows your name, there are collegial relationships that are very close and supportive. The whole pace and climate is often different in a positive way that may offset to some extent the lower salaries.”

In rural counties, case workers have a stronger sense of community, which can also make the job more rewarding, according to Patrick Betancourt, Policy Program Administrator at the N.C. Division of Social Services.

“Even though it is a non-tangible thing, it does motivate the worker to strive for the best practices they possibly can,” Betancourt said.

It can not only make up for lower salaries, but larger case loads.

“They can tolerate the heavy work load when they feel like they are making a difference,” Williams said.

However, there is a tipping point.

“The higher the work load, the less able they are to be engaged in a way that might make a difference,” Williams said. And likewise, “if the salary is really low and people don’t feel like it is a fair salary, then it is a major problem that has to be solved before anything else kicks in.”


Why stretched so thin?

Swain County child welfare workers routinely work more cases than they should under state standards.

But how many social workers to hire — along with how much to pay them — is up to each county. The state and federal governments pitch in some money to cover social workers’ salaries, but counties pick up most of the tab and set their own salaries  and staffing levels.

The state does, however, dictate a reasonable caseload — one that Swain routinely exceeded. Child welfare workers should have no more than 10 open cases at a time, according to state statute. Some Swain child welfare workers had nearly double that at times.

The state does not check for compliance to determine whether county DSS agencies are exceeding the maximum caseload for child welfare workers.

“Quite honestly, I believe that is a local responsibility,” said Sherry Bradsher, the state director of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Bradsher said it’s the job of the county DSS director “to make sure their agency is staffed appropriately.”

The state periodically does a performance review of each county DSS, about every three years or so. But caseload is not an area the state makes a habit of inspecting or asking about.

Bradsher said the state does keep monthly data on the number of child welfare cases in each county, and could feasibly calculate the caseload. But no one at the state level does so as a matter of course.

Besides, there are nuances behind the numbers.

“Just seeing we have 25 open cases doesn’t tell me a lot. How many are going to close in the next day or so? How many children are in each of those cases? How high risk are they?” Bradsher said. “It may be OK to be three or four cases over. I am not sure it is OK to have twice as many cases.”

If Bradsher learned that a county was routinely and egregiously exceeding the acceptable caseload, and she believed children’s safety was at risk as a result, it could trigger some heavy-handed intervention.

The state theoretically can seize control of child welfare functions, hire the necessary number of workers, and then bill the county for it, Bradsher said.

“We didn’t want situations where workers had too many cases,” Bradsher said of the state provision allowing for a take over. “Fortunately, we have never had to do that. Counties are very conscientious about the needs of child welfare. I think what you will find as far as positions across our state is most counties are appropriately staffed.”

However, an issue can arise when workers quit, Bradsher said.

“The problem comes in with vacancies. You have high turn over quite honestly, particularly in child welfare,” Bradsher said.

As the cases pile up, child welfare workers might be tempted to clear old cases from their books  to make room for new ones. But it is unlikely child welfare workers would lower the bar to close cases more quickly and stay within the maximum caseload, according to Betancourt.

“I wouldn’t say there is pressure to let cases slide,” Betancourt said. “But you are constantly evaluating cases for safety and risk. As you start getting nearer your maximum you look at is there continued risk? You start evaluating more closely.”

Social workers could theoretically spend years working with a family.

“That’s part of what drives you to be a social worker. Can you make this family the best it can possibly be?” Betancourt said.

But at some point the social worker has to decide the improvement in the child’s home environment is adequate.

“That is constantly the balancing game that social workers have to play,” Betancourt said.


Oversight in the ranks

In addition to case load, the state also sets standards for supervisor-to-staff ratio: one supervisor for every five child welfare case workers.

Many counties exceed the supervisor to staff ratio by one or two workers, but won’t bite the bullet and hire that additional supervisor until they hit three or four over.

With a staff of experienced child welfare workers, pushing the ratio may be fine. When there are lots of new hires in ranks as there were in Swain, the ratio of one-to-five may not be enough.

Finding experienced, qualified supervisors is just as challenging as finding rank-and-file child welfare workers.

Often, those who excel in their job are promoted to supervisor, Betancourt said. But a good case worker doesn’t automatically make a good supervisor.

Promoting supervisors from within without giving them proper management training was a problem at Swain DSS, according to the state’s competency review of the agency in March.

Child welfare supervisors did not provide adequate direction, coaching and oversight for the rank-and-file child welfare workers, particularly given their lack of training and the large number of new hires.

Tammy Cagle, the former DSS director, had herself risen in the ranks. She started out as an entry level social worker in 1998 and within seven years had worked her way up to director. Cagle made $66,000 a year, on the very low end of DSS directors. The DSS director in Haywood makes $93,000 and in Jackson he makes $106,000.

Cagle had not asked the county to add additional child welfare positions for at least two years, according to the agency.

However, the new interim director, Jerry Smith, told county leaders he needed an additional child welfare supervisor as soon as possible.

“He needs the staff,” County Manager Kevin King told commissioners last week.

Swain County commissioners granted Smith’s request.

Quality supervisors, and enough of them, helps with the challenge of hiring and keeping good social workers, according to experts in the field.

“I think the supervisor to worker ratio is real key,” said Bob Cochran, the director of Jackson County DSS. “That really makes the difference to help people go over cases and debrief and train, especially new workers. They need a lot of face time and support and encouragement. That is real critical.”

Betancourt agreed.

“Having a supervisor that can help in making tough decisions and provide good clinical feedback is important,” Betancourt said.

Swain DSS was suffering from low morale among workers last year, according to the minutes of DSS board meetings.

In January 2010, board minutes referenced low morale among workers and team-building efforts to improve it. In December, one board member noted an improvement in morale, at least judging by the good time staff had at the agency’s annual Christmas luncheon, according to the minutes of the meeting.


Proof is in the training

The challenge developing good child welfare workers — both recruiting and retaining them — is the on-going subject of research by Williams at the UNC School of Social Work, considered one of the best in the field.

Williams held a round-table focus group with DSS directors from several WNC counties in Sylva this winter.

All said they suffered from a limited pool of qualified applicants.

“Directors have what is called a grow-your-own strategy in many places and that makes sense. People who already live in the community, have a commitment to the community and understand the community,” Williams said.

The problem, however, is that they lack training or education in child welfare or social work.

The job can be a “rude awakening” for those who have no training in the field, Cochran said. They won’t last long as a result.

The shortage of child welfare workers, particularly those trained in the field, spawned a state incentive program offering college scholarships to students willing to major in social work and put in requisite time on the job after graduation.

Similar to the state’s Teaching Fellows concept, the Child Welfare Education Collaborative offers $6,000 a year for undergraduates majoring in the field. In exchange, they must put in one year on the job for every year of financial assistance.

Western Carolina University was among the first universities to participate when it was started four years ago.

Cochran said it has helped with hiring prospects locally.

“For people who have majored in child welfare or social work, there is a cognitive resonance in what their dreams and aspirations are and what they are doing,” Cochran said. “They are really fulfilled and living their dream and tend to stay longer.”

But for the vast majority who don’t have the degree, on-the-job training becomes a make-or-break factor, Cochran said. It’s best to ease them in to the job, allowing them to shadow other workers at first, then making sure their first solo cases are easier ones.

“That is really key to longevity: the feeling of mastery early on. If they get overwhelmed early, you can bet they won’t be around long,” Cochran said.

Of course, it’s easier said than done when the rest of the staff is over-worked, and eager to have the new hire take on a full load as quickly as possible to relieve the burden.

“If you are low staffed and have had some turnover everyone else is carrying the load and suffering a bit,” Cochran said. While it’s tempting to have them hit the ground running, Cochran refrains in favor of what he considers a “long-term investment” that starts with good training.

The qualifications to be a child welfare worker aren’t particularly tough. It takes a four-year degree in a related field — and what qualifies as a related field is open to interpretation. A basic liberal-arts English degree counts as a related field as far as many counties are concerned. If counties are particularly desperate for workers, the list of “related” fields could be quite long.

“Like many other small counties, Swain County often has to under fill social work positions with persons who demonstrate some abilities, but do not necessarily have the experience and skill level commensurate with the requirements of the position,” according to the state’s competency review of the agency in the wake of the scandal.

All new hires must attend 72 hours of classroom training. The crash course is put on several times a year at a training site in Asheville where all western counties send their new hires.

After that, they are technically certified to start working cases. The training can’t come close to preparing child welfare workers from the things they will witness: children in drug infested homes, children being sexually abused by their own fathers, children going hungry.

“You can see quite a bit of burn out in a job like this,” said Betancourt.


Slipped through the cracks

Given the challenges recruiting and retaining child welfare workers, the lack of training for new hires, high caseloads in the face of turn over and generally stressful work, its not hard to understand how cases can fall through the cracks. But the consequences can clearly be tragic.

Smith was not the only social worker that witnessed Aubrey in a harmful environment.

In November of last year, social workers took an older child out of the same trailer where Aubrey lived, citing drug and alcohol use. Aubrey was left behind, however, despite social workers also witnessing extremely cold conditions in the trailer.

An autopsy report ruled hypothermia as a possible cause of death.

That same month, a third social worker made a yet another visit to the trailer, acting on yet another tip of abuse. Aubrey’s caregiver signed a statement promising not to physically punish Aubrey, who was only 13-months-old at the time. The autopsy report cited a previously broken arm and numerous recent bruises on her head.

Despite policies and procedures that are supposed to ensure the safety of children, there is not adequate oversight by the state when something goes wrong, said David Wijewickrama, a Waynesville attorney representing Aubrey’s family.

“The reason children contiunue to die in the state of North Carolina is because the state does not have on-site review that scrutinizes the actions of social workers and holds them personally accountable when it results in serious bodily injury of the death of a child,” Wijewickrama said.


Protecting children: by the numbers

Haywood DSS

Number of cases last year    1056

Child welfare supervisors    3.5

Child welfare workers    18

Starting salary    $37,500

Turn-over    4 last year; on par with previous years

Jackson DSS

Number of cases last year    666

Child welfare supervisors    2

Child welfare workers    11

Starting salary    $39,800

Turn-over    4 last year; higher than average

Swain DSS

Number of cases last year    528

Child welfare supervisors    2; soon to be 3

Child welfare workers    8

Starting salary    $33,000

Turn-over    7 last year

The former head of Swain County’s Department of Social Services won’t be getting her job back, members of the county’s DSS board decided in a called meeting on Monday.

The board had dismissed Cagle following a hearing last month, but she launched an appeal attempting to be reinstalled in the position.

The appeal triggered a second hearing before the board, where Cagle was allowed to plead her case again in closed session.

Now that the board has again voted to uphold her dismissal, Cagle has one final recourse, to appeal to the N.C. Office of State Personnel.

She was dismissed in the wake of a scandal sparked by the death of 15-month-old Aubrey Littlejohn who died in January. The State Bureau of Investigation is investigating an alleged cover-up at the agency. A social worker claimed he had been directed by superiors to falsify records following the baby’s death.

However, Cagle was fired for reasons unrelated to that case. Reasons cited were insubordination and “conduct unbecoming of a state employee.”

Interim Director Jerry Smith, who came to the job from Brevard, will stay until a permanent replacement is found.

Tammy Cagle, once the leader of the Swain County Department of Social Services, has been given the ax by the department’s board of directors.

Cagle, however, is fighting the decision. She’s appealed to the board, who handed down the decision in a closed hearing last week.

The five-member board let the former director go for charges of insubordination and conduct unbecoming to a state employee, but no further details were given in the statement released last week.

Swain DSS has been embroiled in controversy since the State Bureau of Investigation raided the agency and seized its computers in February as part of an ongoing probe into an alleged cover-up following the death of a 15-month-old Cherokee baby, Aubrey Littlejohn.

The child’s family members repeatedly warned Swain DSS of abuse and neglect, but social workers failed to remove the baby from its caretaker or adequately investigate the claims. After Aubrey’s death, social worker Craig Smith, falsified records to hide the negligence. Though he claims the cover-up was at the insistence of his superiors, Cagle denied the claim at a DSS board meeting earlier this month.

“Have I led or participated in any cover-up or falsification of records with this agency? No, absolutely not,” Cagle said.

Cagle was suspended with pay after the department launched its own investigation into the incident.

Her dismissal, however, is for reasons unrelated to Aubrey’s death and the furor surrounding the cover-up.

Smith has since resigned.

Board members wouldn’t comment on the decision, but it’s the culmination of a controversy that filled three of the five DSS board seats with new members.

Two-thirds of the former board resigned in protest when county commissioners called publicly for the suspension of Cagle during the probe into Aubrey’s death and the alleged cover-up at the agency.

Commissioners were mostly mum on this latest decision, though.

“It was entirely their [the DSS board’s] decision what happened,” said Commissioner Donnie Dixon. “We just wanted an investigation.”

Commissioner Robert White, who also chairs the DSS board, referred questions to the department’s attorney, Justin Greene, and other commissioners didn’t return calls or offered no comment.

Ruth McCoy, Aubrey’s aunt, said she and her family were pleased with the decision, but wished Cagle no ill.

“It’s not about the person, it’s about the position. The person in that position has to be in control of the people under them,” said McCoy. “We’re just glad that the board made the decision that they did with the director and hopefully the new director will come in and build good relationships with the tribe and the surrounding communities, so people have faith again in the DSS.”

Cagle has spent the last 13 years of her career with social services in Swain County, the last six as the director.

She started in 1998 as an entry-level social worker, moving up the ranks to supervisor, program director and, in 2005, director.

Since her suspension, the department has brought in Jerry Smith, a social work veteran from Brevard, as an interim director with extensive experience and degrees in the field.

In waiting for the investigation to wrap up, the county has been on the hook for both Cagle’s $66,000 salary and the cost to have Smith temporarily at the wheel.

Now that Cagle has lodged her appeal, the board will schedule another hearing to reexamine the case. Cagle will have another chance to appeal to the N.C. Office of State Personnel if the board upholds their June 21 decision.

In the meantime, the board has said it will keep Smith at the helm of DSS until a permanent replacement can be installed.

By most accounts, calling Art Williams a hands-on developer would be a pretty fair description. For decades, Williams was in the business of subdivision building, first in Florida and then in Western North Carolina.

In pretty much everything, his word was the final say. He picked the land to be developed, he divvied up the plots, he instructed engineers and construction crews. He even sold many of the lots himself.

Even as his health failed, said his wife Anne, her husband was routinely on the scene at the developments. His regular contractors said the same. He was there when the pavement was laid on the roads in Alarka Creek Properties, one of the Williams’ first developments in Swain County. And it was he who approved the words “state-approved paved roads” in brochures advertising the developments. He signed off on the erosion and sediment control plans for the 5.5 miles of roads that crisscross the development.

But it was not Williams who footed the bill when some of those roads began to deteriorate and slide from the mountains they were cut steeply into.

Of the homeowners in the subdivision, many bought their properties directly from Williams and believed the state-approved-roads pitch, until they were left with $40,000 worth of repairs and roads that were, in places, perpetually in peril.

This hadn’t been part of the purchase bargain. And in 2008, the costs and safety concerns reached a critical mass. The Alarka Creek Properties Homeowners Association took the late Williams’ Cane Creek Development Corporation to court, charging that he and his team misled them, saddling them with defective and dangerous roads.

Three years later, they won, to the tune of $3 million — the largest judgment court clerks had ever seen in Swain County — and threw into sharp relief the ongoing debate in Western North Carolina over steep-slope development and who is responsible when it falls, literally, to pieces.


What went wrong?

Alarka Creek Properties is a two-pronged development precisely 5 miles from Exit 69, just west of Bryson City. Its twin developments, Timber Creek Estates and Eagles’ Roost, sweep up the faces of neighboring mountainsides, cradling Alarka Creek neatly between them.

They’re not subdivisions in the traditional sense — there’s no pool or clubhouse, and most of the homes aren’t even within shouting distance of one another. They do have gates and a homeowners’ association, but really, the two developments are collections of retirement retreats and second homes, a mixture of already-built houses and empty plots that boast spectacular vistas of the surrounding landscapes.

The roads that lead to and connect them, though, aren’t for the faint of heart or fragile of vehicle. Sitting at the apex of Eagles’ Roost, facing down the mountain isn’t dissimilar to the slow crest of a rollercoaster’s first descent, peering down the long incline. They drop off steeply to one side and hug the sheer mountainside on the other. And though few cars are around to traverse the lanes, meeting one headed in the opposite direction can be a harrowing experience. The views are pastoral — the drive, less so.

The roads are anywhere from seven to 10 feet across. In places, there are signs of distress — fissures and cracking. They’re all passable now, but that hasn’t always been the case.

“We’ve had three multi-thousand dollar slides, we had a road that we had to move 2,000 feet of with blasting,” said John Foster, the homeowners’ association’s one-time president. “Ultimately, the road probably should not have been put in.”

That is, of course, only his opinion.

But, according to a study done by Bunnell-Lammons Engineering, a geotechnical firm out of Asheville, he’s at least partially correct.

There was never a dedicated, detailed road plan drawn up for Alarka Creek’s roads. Swain County doesn’t require one, and unless a developer plans on leaving the road in the state’s care, neither does the state.

There was, however, the required erosion and sediment control plan that detailed how the roads would meet state standards for erosion and run-off on the steep fill slopes — manmade grades with fill dirt pulled from the surrounding mountain.

It’s not a definitive road-building guide, but it spelled out the basic standards for what would be installed at Alarka Creek: road thickness, slope and drainage measures.

And, said the engineering firm, had developers and contractors followed the plans, the roads probably would’ve been fine.

But they didn’t.


Detailing the problems

There are, said the report, four basic reasons for mountain road failure: insufficient pavement thickness, insufficient asphalt compaction, slope instability and bad drainage.

In places, Alarka Creek’s roads showed all four.

Where the plans called for pavement to be two inches thick, in some spots it was only 1.5.  They specified six inches of crushed stone under that pavement. Most roads averaged only 5.4. One had barely more than an inch.

Ninety-five to 96 percent compaction is industry standard for a fill slope — unlike the mountain’s native soil, it hasn’t had thousands of years to build up its structural integrity. The more densely packed, the less likely it’ll move around, cracking and sliding. That’s what the plans called for, too.

Most of the subdivision’s roads averaged between 84 and 89 percent compaction.

And then there’s the slope.

The state recommends a two-to-one, horizontal-to-vertical slope ratio at minimum for a safe road. And again, that’s what appeared on the erosion control plan submitted to the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

But the engineering firm found some of the slopes to be as steep as one-to-one.

“The roadway fill embankments evaluated have a significant potential for instability because the roadway fill embankments are constructed of loose fill that have a steeper slope inclination than fill soil conditions can support,” read the summary report.

In other words, you can’t have loose dirt and a steep road, too, or eventually, you won’t have a road.

“When you have slopes too steep and base and asphalt too thin, the roads are going to fall apart,” said Dan Bryson of Raleigh, the lead attorney on the homeowners’ side. The case, he said, was simple — poorly constructed roads sold through false advertising.

“When they showed homeowners paved road as an inducement to sell, it was a bait and switch,” said Bryson. “There was significant engineers’ testimony that these roads were not built pursuant to local standards. When you build a road, there’s just some basic things you have to do. And it’s going to take a little bit longer, but you just need to do it right.”

Anne Williams, Art Williams’ widow, disagrees with those assertions. As the sole owner of Cane Creek Development, she is the defendant.

Bryson and his legal team pointed to the multiple slides and alligator cracking — patchwork cracks that resemble the crusty reptilian pattern of an alligator’s back — as signs that the roads were faulty from the outset.

“But that’s typical of all roads in [Western] North Carolina, when you pave them,” said Williams. “All the other evidence was that we had done the right thing, we’d done the best roads we could do. State roads slide all the time, and 90 percent of that road is there the same way we built it.”

Could they have gotten a geotechnical engineer, like BLE, to come and test the sites before the road was laid? Sure, said Williams. But no developer does that, she said; it’s too cost prohibitive.

“You‘re selling lots to average people. This is not a country club setting,” said Williams. “We wanted to build in a way that the average person could buy and have a second home, not what we always called the ritzy ditzy.”

Plus, she said, they knew what they were getting.

“They all personally signed [a statement] that they understood that these were private roads and they were inferior to state roads and that the burden of keeping up the roads would be on the homeowners’ association,” said Williams.

And regardless of the roads’ initial construction, that much is true. Which points to a problem facing not just Swain County, but every mountainside subdivision in the region.


Caveat Emptor

Paul Carlson is a man familiar with degraded land. He’s the executive director of the Franklin-based Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, a non-profit group that works in land preservation. He is concerned about the glut of developments in WNC such as Alarka Creek, where steep lots connected by questionable roads have now fallen to owners to maintain. And those owners may not have always done their homework.

“Perhaps they hadn’t done significant due diligence to find out what they’re getting into, and now collectively own a liability,” said Carlson. And what then? “With poorly designed road systems on these properties, every year that passes the liability is increasing. Well, who’s going to be responsible for that stuff?”

That’s a question that legal precedents like the Alarka Creek case are looking to settle, but historically, a lot of homeowners have been left holding the bag on decaying roads they didn’t think they signed up for.

John Foster certainly didn’t. When he bought his plot in Alarka Creek, he didn’t dream Williams would sell him a lot on an unsafe road. But he didn’t look too far into it, either.

“I thought it was steep, but again with the advertisement of state-approved, I thought, ‘OK, if the state of North Carolina is going to approve this, then I’m OK with it,’” said Foster. “We did sign a release, but what we understood was we were going to maintain the roads, but we were going to be given roads that were maintainable.”

But this, of course, is not actually a given.

The truth is that, when it comes to private roads, no one is really checking.

During pre-trial interviews, lawyers asked that very question: is there anyone who makes sure these roads are being constructed properly? A state agency? Local authorities? A retired volunteer? Anyone?

“When you construct a house, you have an inspector come in and say ‘this house is substantially complete and it has been constructed in conformance with the plans and specs submitted on file’… to your knowledge, there is no one who does that for roads or private roads?” Bryson’s fellow attorney Scott Harris asked Victor Lofquist, a civil engineer in Sylva who did the erosion plan for Alarka Creek and most of Williams’ other projects.

“Not that I am aware of anywhere,” replied Lofquist.

Doug Parker, the excavator who helped install the roads, replied similarly.

“To my knowledge, there is no equivalent to that (a building inspector) on a road development project,” said Parker.

And that’s become pretty clear in the years since mountainside developments began to see their vogue.

Roads have been splintering and slipping off the hills in subdivisions around the region, and local officials began to realize that maybe someone should, in fact, be looking.


Road Regulation

Enter subdivision ordinances, those controversial local laws that give officials a little more power over what’s going up in their jurisdiction and how it’s built.

Haywood County has one that limits cut slopes to 1.5 to one, and spells out things that state erosion control standards do not, such as no organic matter in roadbeds; it will decompose and crack holes in the street. And they keep tabs to make sure it’s all being done according to plan.

“What would happen is if somebody built a subdivision road here that was subject to the erosion control law is you would submit your plan to us, we would give you approval, we would inspect it periodically. Then we do perform a final inspection,” said Marc Pruett, erosion control program director in Haywood County.

In Jackson County, a similar ordinance was passed, drawing some ire from developers in a locale heavy laden with second homes peppering the steep mountain faces.

But when it comes to such laws, there is a schism in the church of steep-slope construction.

Parker told attorneys in his deposition that those regulations helped grind his subdivision road-building work to a halt in Jackson County.

“We used to (build roads) a lot until we had a subdivision ordinance in this county and then it came to a stop,” said Parker. “Pretty much everything in this area that stopped developing because there was restraints of subdivision ordinances.”

Swain County has no such regulations. There was some movement on the idea around 2007. A committee was even formed, spurred by the news that emergency vehicles couldn’t traverse some of the county’s dicier residential roads. Recommendations were made, but nothing ever came of them. Swain commissioners apparently lacked the political will, in a county that doesn’t even have a planning board.

In neighboring Macon County, a so-called steep slope ordinance is in talks. Macon is dealing with the aftermath of the Wildflower development, which is the apocryphal, when-roads-attack story that seems to drift into most steep-slope conversations.

Wildflower was a behemoth of a development on the side of Cowee Mountain that broke ground in 2005, at the height of the mountain real estate upswing. At the time, it was controversial, but only because local residents feared such an influx of inhabitants would overstretch their resources.

Four years later, most of its lots were in foreclosure. Then the ground broke on it: One of its key thoroughfares collapsed, a landslide followed and a subsequent geological survey cast serious doubt on the rest of the roads in the place. Downslope residents were warned to brace for debris in case of extreme weather.

The neighborhood’s manager defended the roads, calling the collapse an isolated incident and pointing to the fact that the rest of the roads had erosion control approval.

But so, presumably, did the decimated road.


Finding solutions

Back on Alarka, the victorious homeowners are not yet rejoicing. Anne Williams maintains that she is an 81-year-old widow who had nothing to do with the roads’ construction and has no money to pay $3 million for their repairs. She said her refusal to settle with the homeowners wasn’t stubbornness, but insolvency.

“The fact is we lost on Alarka. We may have put in $3 million, but none of it came out of the profit. We have not had to pay income tax for profit reasons for at least five years, if not longer than that,” said Williams. She said she’s closed Cane Creek Development, laid off the staff and headed back to Florida to live off her Social Security.

Dan Bryson, however, thinks Williams’ cries of poormouth are, at best, disingenuous. He’s starting another proceeding against her that, in legalese, is called ‘piercing the veil.’ Basically, he’s going after all the other corporations she has, trying to draw some of the sizeable settlement from them.

In the rest of the region, though, the problem of unstable roads persists, though subdivision ordinances and the economy are cutting down on the number of new substandard streets going down.

Gordon Small, who works with the Haywood Waterway Association, is working on a project to help new developers find the most suitable road locations in the first place, rewarding them with a certification if they follow expert suggestions.

“The No.1 source of non-point pollution — or mud in the creek  — is roads,” said Small. His group is trying to get county commissioners to get on board with the idea.

“You can’t observe this and not be concerned about that,” he said. “People are beginning to recognize that it’s to their advantage to know what’s going to move and what’s not.”

Carlson, with the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, said he’s looking toward an inventory of the region’s perilous roads, so at least they can be monitored for movement.

“Clearly in [the last] decade up until 2008, it was absurd to try to make the argument that the highest and best use of steep-slope land was for forestry, but now it’s kind-of interesting to revisit the question,” said Carlson. “I think a lot of these lands — the most marginal, steep, remote lands where these roads were punched in — it may be that no one wants them.”

And for developers still around, the Swain County jury’s decision is ringing clearly through the mountains.

“I think these jurors are tired of developers who come in, deface the mountains and then put in substandard roads, sell out all the lots and then try to avoid liability,” said Dan Bryson. “I hope that this judgment sends a signal to every developer: if you pave a road on a mountain in Western North Carolina, it needs to be done properly.”

Swain County commissioners have taken back a request made to the General Assembly in February, in hopes of bolstering their lawsuit against neighboring Graham County over payments on the Fontana Dam.

Both counties get payments from the Tennessee Valley Authority in lieu of property taxes for the bits of the dam and hydropower generators that are in their respective counties. They have been locked in battle recently over how much each is entitled to.

Last fall, the N.C. Department of Revenue said the payments were being calculated wrong, and that Graham was entitled to a larger chunk of the funds. Swain lost more than  $200,000 a year under the new formula for TVA payments.

Graham proceeded to file suit against Swain, looking to recoup 60-plus years in back TVA revenue that was misapplied to Swain under the old formula.

So Swain fired back, filing a countersuit and sending a resolution to Raleigh asking for a change in the way payments are calculated.

The payments were once split equally. The new formula gives a greater share to Graham, since more of the dam and generators lie on Graham’s side of the county line.

Swain proposed yet another new formula based on how much property each county lost when the lake was created in the 1940s.

That would bring a lot more revenue to the Swain side, because, according to County Manager Kevin King, Graham only gave 19,000 acres as opposed Swain’s 55,000 back when the lake and dam were built.

But, said King, the measure never got out of committee in the House of Representatives, stymied at every turn by Rep. Roger West, R-Marble, who represents Graham.

King said the county still stands behind the idea.

“Any time you have a county that’s suffered, that the TVA has taken 55,000 acres away from and the other county only got 19,000 taken, any county would say that’s wrong [to be compensated less],” said King.

But Kim Lay, Swain County’s attorney, apparently told commissioners in a 15-minute closed session to discuss the litigation that rescinding the request for legislation, since it died in committee anyway, would be better for Swain when it comes to the legal suit.

The legal claim is still in the discovery phase, and King said he expects movement on the issue over the next few months.

For now, Swain County Department of Social Services Director Tammy Cagle still has her job. But that might soon be in question after a decision made by the county’s DSS board Monday night.

Supporters of the suspended Cagle gathered at the board’s meeting, speaking out in her favor before board members entered an hour-long executive session to discuss Cagle’s future with the department.

In the end, the five-member board voted unanimously to call Cagle back to a hearing later this month “to consider dismissal.”

Cagle herself spoke in her own defense prior to the closed session, telling board members that she’d never instigated a cover-up in the department, as has been alleged by former social worker Craig Smith.

Smith, who was placed on leave and has now resigned his post, told investigators that Cagle and Program Manager T.L. Jones ordered him to falsify reports following the death of Aubrey Littlejohn, a 15-month-old Cherokee baby who died in January despite repeated visits from DSS representatives. Cagle was suspended from her post while an investigation into the baby’s death was undertaken.

“I realize that my silence for so long has been a mistake,” said Cagle, going on to defend her agency and its actions. “Have I made mistakes and am I still learning as a director? Absolutely. Have I led or participated in any cover-up or falsification of records with this agency? No, absolutely not.”

Cagle was joined at the podium by family members and former DSS clients, who praised her merits as a director and a social worker.

Also present, though, were some from Aubrey’s family, asking that her memory not be forgotten and that Cagle be held accountable for how DSS handled the case.

“I’m here because of our child that died, we can’t bring her back. She [Cagle] can go out and get another job, we can’t get our baby back,” said Ruth McCoy, Aubrey’s aunt. McCoy said she was disappointed by the board’s inaction on the matter.

“I mean, I thought they were going to take action on this tonight, but it seems like they’re just going to discuss it,” said McCoy. “It seems like the people that came out to support her were more angry about our family and her job than about what happened.”

And some who came to back Cagle did lay the blame for Aubrey’s death on her family, rather than on DSS.

“I can’t blame other people for what happens to my children. They knew how Ladybird [Powell, Aubrey’s caretaker] was all of her life, her entire life, now why didn’t they go get that child when it was first put there in the beginning?” asked Eunice Washington of Aubrey’s family.

While eight people shared their thoughts on Cagle’s fitness to lead the organization, the board itself remained quiet on the issue. They called Cagle in for discussions, but said their only comment would be to schedule a hearing to discuss Cagle’s possible dismissal.

It’s not only been the staff, but the DSS board too has seen upheaval in the aftermath of Aubrey’s death.

After a tense closed session in March, when the board deadlocked on whether to suspend Cagle and Jones, most of the board turned in their resignations under pressure from county commissioners. But they didn’t go down quietly, taking to the podium at a commissioners’ meeting to berate that board for denigrating them publicly.

Currently, three of the five social services board members are just over two months into the job. Frela Beck and Robert White, also a county commissioner, are the only remaining members.

Some asked why Jones, Cagle’s second-in-command, had been allowed to stay on, while the director was put on administrative leave with pay.

Jones and two of the other four employees named in an SBI search warrant issued in an investigation are still on board with the department. They have, however, been asked by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to stay away from the Qualla Boundary, instead sending other social workers to handle cases there.  

The DSS board has called a pre-disciplinary hearing for June 21, where they said they’ll talk to Cagle about her future with the department.


Social worker resigns

Craig Smith, the Swain County social worker named in a recent SBI investigation, has resigned from the Department of Social Services.  

Smith came under scrutiny during a probe by the Swain County Sheriff’s Department and the SBI into the death of 15-month-old Aubrey Littlejohn. Smith was Aubrey’s caseworker and visited her home several times prior to her January death, though he took no steps to remove her and made no follow-ups.

After her death, Smith falsified records to make it appear that he’d kept up with the child. He told investigators that he did it at the direction of his superiors, including Program Manager T.L. Jones and suspended Director Tammy Cagle.

Investigations by the SBI and an internal social services investigation are still underway.

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