A large crowd turned out at the Swain County commissioners meeting this week to voice support for the beleaguered Department of Social Services Board.
Supporters said local board members tasked with overseeing the agency have been unfairly criticized following the death of 15-month-old baby and a criminal investigation into an alleged cover-up.
DSS workers failed to heed complaints from relatives that the baby was in danger and later falsified documents to hide any negligence on their part, according to family members of the child and law enforcement documents.
County commissioners called on the DSS board to suspend employees named in the investigation with pay, including DSS Director Tammy Cagle and Program Manager T.L. Jones.
However, the DSS board was deadlocked on the issue after a three-hour meeting last week.
That prompted the commissioners to call for the resignation of DSS board members in a strongly worded statement sent to media outlets the following day.
“The commissioners urge all the current DSS Board members to immediately resign, so that these positions can be filled with people who are not afraid to put the best interests of children and families of Swain County first at all times,” the statement read.
Three of the five DSS board members resigned by week’s end.
But those who spoke out at the commissioners meeting Monday said the DSS board members have been blamed unfairly.
County commissioners were out of bounds in their statement, according to Betty Sandlin, one of several who gave commissioners a dressing down at the meeting. Sandlin called the press statement by commissioners “abominable,” “despicable,” “unethical” and “disgraceful.”
Sandlin said DSS board members are outstanding citizens, dedicated members of their church, and active in civic affairs.
“You had the unmitigated gall to suggest they don’t have any interest in the children in this community,” Sandlin told commissioners. “You made a colossal error in judgment. Many of us are beginning to wonder whether we made colossal errors in judgment when we voted for you last November.”
DSS board members also took to the podium to defend themselves, claiming they have been unfairly denigrated.
“To vilify the DSS board the way you did is absolutely inexcusable,” said Bob Thomas, a DSS board member. “These libelous insinuations are totally irresponsible, unacceptable and downright obscene.”
Thomas said he resigned not because commissioners asked him to but because he was “fed up and frustrated beyond description.”
DSS Board Chairman Jim Gribble, who suffers from a heart condition, said the controversy in recent weeks has taken a toll on his health, including sleepless nights and a loss of appetite.
“This was truly a most troubling episode in my life,” Gribble said.
Gribble said he has no apologies for how the board has handled the recent crisis.
The press statement by commissioners questioned whether DSS board members’ were putting other interests above those of the community at large and of children in particular.
“The board of commissioners feel that the needs of the children should have more priority than the needs of the director or employees,” the statement read.
Gribble said he was offended by the accusation.
“I am deeply, deeply troubled by the loss of a defenseless innocent child,” Gribble said. “I agreed to serve on this DSS board because I thought I could make a difference. I have an earnest desire for the safety and well-being of children.”
Deadlocked DSS board
Four of the five DSS board members met for three hours behind closed doors last week to debate whether to suspend Director Tammy Cagle and the other employees named. When they finally emerged to the waiting crowd — including family of the dead child and family of the social worker accused of falsifying records — they announced they had not been able to reach a consensus and directed any further questions to the DSS attorney.
While it is legal to discuss personnel decisions in private, public bodies such as the DSS board must vote in the open, allowing the public to witness where each person on the public board stands. This is intended to ensure a transparent, accountable and democratic form of government.
The DSS board never formally voted in public, but instead announced it could not reach a consensus.
With only four board members at the table, it would be easy for them to recognize who was on what side, and whether a formal vote would be futile. The fifth board member was out of town.
Board Chairman Jim Gribble would not reveal which of the board members were in favor of suspension and which were not.
County commissioners asserted that suspending those named in the investigation is crucial to restoring public confidence in the agency and ensuring the integrity of the ongoing investigation.
DSS Board Member Thomas countered that in his eyes people are innocent until proven guilty.
“I refuse to compromise my convictions for the convenience of the situation,” Thomas said.
Thomas said DSS Director Cagle has the support of her staff, witnessed by 25 DSS employees who came forward to speak on their boss’s behalf as the board weighed whether to put her on leave.
Commissioners pointed out in the press statement that it is standard protocol for any government agency to suspend employees with pay during an ongoing investigation, regardless of guilt or innocence.
“It has never been the intention of the board of commissioners to accuse anyone of wrongdoing, but suspending the employees would help authorities with the state conduct an unbiased investigation and have more flexibility to do their job,” the statement issued by commissioners read.
According to commissioners, the state Department of Health and Human Services likewise wanted the employees put on leave with pay.
But several audience members at the meeting challenged that. They said they didn’t believe the state had recommended suspending the DSS employees and asked for proof.
In a public statement, Sherry Bradsher, the state director in Raleigh, said that personnel decisions ultimately rest at the local level. But she added that the DSS board should do what it takes to ensure public confidence in the agency.
“We have offered guidance and a strong reminder to the board of its responsibilities as defined by General Statute, which includes its authority over the director,” Bradsher said.
Gribble said the state made recommendations but no mandates on whether the employees should be suspended.
In the dark
County Commissioner Steve Moon was the lone commissioner who didn’t believe DSS employees should be suspended or that DSS board members should resign. Moon, who is the uncle of the DSS director, chastised the other commissioners for sending out the press statement without his knowledge. He learned of it when watching the news on television.
“Why was this done without telling me? I was totally out in the dark until I saw it on WLOS. No one called me. I had zero input on that decision. I would like to know why,” Moon said.
Moon blamed County Manager Kevin King, but King said he was acting at the direction of three of the five commissioners by sending the press statement. King, along with the three commissioners, were in Raleigh on county business at the time.
Commissioner Robert White was put in charge of calling Moon to let him know. White said he tried to call Moon but couldn’t reach him.
Moon also was upset that the DSS board members weren’t personally notified, but learned from reporters that commissioners were calling for their resignations. Moon apologized to the board members in the audience even though he wasn’t part of the decision.
“I am sorry. I am really, truly sorry it has come down to this,” Moon said, prompting an extended standing ovation from the large crowd. The crowd was so large the meeting was moved into a courtroom instead of the regular meeting room.
Speakers also lashed out at the media, blaming the press for negative publicity of the county.
“They are having a heyday,” Thomas said, coining the coverage a “media frenzy.”
Indeed, newspapers and television stations from across the region have reported on the raid of DSS offices by the State Bureau of Investigation and the investigation into the baby’s death.
Sandlin blamed the commissioners for “fueling a media circus” and portraying a “demoralizing” picture of the county.
“The snap judgment of a few irritated commissioners to make us a public spectacle only served to fuel the media and further hostilities,” Gribble added.
While the DSS board defended its name, family of the Cherokee baby who died reminded the audience why they were here in the first place.
“We are sorry your feelings got hurt, but you guys get to go home to your families, hurt feelings or whatever. When we go home, we are missing a member from our family,” Ruth McCoy, the child’s great aunt, said at the meeting.
While the alleged cover-up at DSS has gotten most of the attention, McCoy said the agency is equally at fault for leaving the baby in an unsafe home despite pleas by relatives to remove her.
“We are here because they didn’t do their job. None of this had to happen,” McCoy said.
Some speakers expressed their condolences to McCoy for the family’s loss.
Vacancies on the board
Following the resignation of three board members, the DSS board is short three members. Of those, one is appointed by the county commissioners and the other two by the state Department of Health and Human Services.
County commissioners voted this week on a replacement, selecting Georgianna Carson. Carson is the daughter of a long-time doctor in Swain County who helped found the hospital.
Commissioners were split on who to appoint, however. Commissioners Moon and White wanted to appoint Paul Crawley, owner of a soda fountain shop, but Commissioner Phil Carson, David Monteith and Donnie Dixon backed Georgianna Carson.
It could be the end of next week before the state makes its new appointments.
“It is always challenge in smaller communities finding people that are willing to serve and volunteer even under normal circumstances,” said Sherry Bradsher, director of state health and human services.
Given the tremendous publicity surrounding DSS in such a small community, appointments will take more careful consideration than ever, Bradsher said. For those who do volunteer, Bradsher wants to understand their reason for doing so, and ability to be in a tough spot.
“We want to be sure the people we appoint are going to be fair and good listeners and make the decisions that are appropriate for moving the agency and the county forward,” Bradsher said.
Timeline of recent events
• Thursday, March 3 — Swain County commissioners vote 4 to 1 for the DSS board to suspend with pay those named in an SBI investigation.
• Tuesday, March 8 — After a three-hour meeting, DSS board members are deadlocked over whether to suspend employees and announced no consensus.
• Wednesday, March 9 — County commissioners call for the resignation of DSS board members in a strongly worded press statement.
• Thursday, March 10 — Three DSS board members resign.
• Swain commissioners call for DSS board resignations
• Jim Gribble and Bob Thomas resignation letters
• Public statement by DSS Board Chairman Jim Gribble
• Public statement by DSS Board member Bob Thomas
• Read the warrant