Tribal members and leaders alike vented their discontent with Swain County’s handling of child welfare for Cherokee children at this month’s tribal council meeting.
The Eastern Band no longer wants to rely on Swain County’s Department of Social Services but instead is laying a framework for a new, tribe-operated child protective unit.
Their anger was in response to the death of 15-month-old Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn, who died in January despite repeated warnings by relatives to Swain DSS of suspected abuse and neglect. The department is now under investigation for possible missteps and a subsequent cover-up.
The Eastern Band doesn’t handle its own child protective services; the task falls to DSS agencies in neighboring counties.
That may soon change, however. Family members, community members and professional child advocates appeared before the council and implored them to bring child welfare in-house.
“Our priorities are not on our own people,” said Regina Rosario, director of Heart-to-Heart, a Cherokee child advocacy program. “We can realign priorities, and all it takes is just the will in this chamber right here.”
Principal Chief Michel Hicks, who said he had to tread carefully in light of the ongoing investigation, acknowledged that there were problems with the current set-up of child welfare services, and confirmed that “the fire is burning again” on an initiative dating back to 2007 to bring it under the auspices of the tribe.
Hicks said he’s pulled together a team of deputies and other officials to look into the feasibility of a child welfare unit, and that reports will be coming to council over the next few months.
Aubrey’s family also stood up to ask the community for support, putting their voice behind resurrecting the idea of tribal child protective services.
Ruth McCoy, Aubrey’s great aunt, with tears thanked the council for engaging a private investigator following the child’s death. Chief Hicks and Tribal Attorney General Annette Tarnawsky made the decision to hire the investigator to check into her death because of reservations about how the case had been handled. Case workers had visited the child’s home several times prior to her death, and state investigators are now looking into allegations that workers failed to follow up with Aubrey and then falsified records in the case.
“She can’t speak, so we have to speak for her,” said McCoy, who is heading a letter-writing campaign lobbying the state for a full investigation of Swain County child protective services, which has now been launched.
She too asked council and the chief about moving child protective services under the umbrella of the tribe, referencing a 2007 proposal by Hicks to do just that.
McCoy proclaimed this the time to take action in the wake of Aubrey’s death.
“Let’s do something about this and get some questions answered about what’s going to happen with our social service department,” said McCoy.
“The simple fact is we just want the truth to be told,” said Hicks. “We also don’t want to see this happen to another baby in our future.”
Many members have questioned whether Swain County social workers take cases involving American Indian children as seriously as white children. The failure by Swain DSS to remove Aubrey from an unsafe trailer that lacked heat and had known drug activity underscores the concern, family members say.
“It’s unfortunate and it does bring question to what else may be sitting out there to where a job has not been done on behalf of our tribal memberships,” Chief Hicks said. “And that’s a huge question and that’s a huge issue that we have to get to the bottom of. It’s time to take a different approach on social services, without question.”
But Carol Maennle, a Swain County social worker, said their agency looks after Native American children the same as white children.
“Don’t think for a minute we don’t love and try to treat them the same way,” Maennle said during a Swain County meeting this week.
Swain County DSS stands to lose money if the tribe takes over its own child welfare cases. DSS receives more for services provided to Native American children than for other children. Reimbursement for social work involving Cherokee children comes from the federal government, which provides a higher level of reimbursement, while funding for other children comes from the state, which doesn’t pay as much.
Other community members asked council members to take action to improve social services, as well.
Council Member Teresa McCoy reported that at a recent community meeting in Big Cove, more than a few residents came forward to relay their own bad experiences with social services in both Swain and Jackson counties, and even more came forward to express similar grievances to tribal council.
“Obviously this issue has touched everybody on this boundary. We’re parents and we take it personally,” said McCoy.
Jasmine Littlejohn, Aubrey’s mother who is currently jailed on federal drug charges, called tearfully for DSS officials to be called to account, saying that she hoped her daughter’s death would not be in vain.
“I want to see that nothing else like this happens to another child,” said Littlejohn, in a jailhouse interview. “My daughter may have just saved other child’s lives.”
Littlejohn said she was confident that, had her daughter not been American Indian, she would have been given better treatment by DSS workers.
Tarnawsky’s office has encouraged members with complaints about social services to contact them, noting that they’ve been involved in the investigation from the outset.
“We just want to find out what happened to this child and see what steps we as a tribe need to make and to take so that our children are well-protected,” said Tarnawsky.
Other tribal council members also expressed support for the initiative to take some social services out of state hands.
Bill Taylor, who represents Wolftown, said moves should be made on meetings held nearly a year ago to discuss that very idea.
“I think it’s the consensus of everybody here that we need our own program,” said Taylor. “Who’s going to take care of our children better? Our own people. I think it’s time that we stop dragging it on, and let’s do something about it before this happens to another family.”
The chief, however, turned it back on the council, challenging them to take their own steps towards a more active role in the tribe’s next move on the issue.
“It’s time for us all to step up and do something about it,” said Hicks. “It’s not just on the chief’s shoulders. There’s 12 council members that can step up also.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
• 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
The state could step in to run the Swain County Department of Social Services if the top leaders are among those put on leave during a probe into an alleged cover-up.
Swain DSS falsified records relating to the abuse and neglect of a 15-month-old baby who later died, according to an investigation by the Swain County Sheriff’s Office and the State Bureau of Investigation.
The family of the child have asked those named in the probe, including the DSS director and program manager, be suspended pending the outcome of the investigation.
“I don’t think it is right for them to keep working,” said Leighann McCoy, one of the family members. “Look at all the lives they have in their hands. Their jobs are a matter of life and death.”
The Swain County commissioners have concurred, although they don’t have authority over DSS employees — that lies with a separate DSS board.
So last week, commissioners formally called on the DSS board to suspend the employees in a 4 to 1 vote at a special meeting. The lone “no” vote came from Commissioner Steve Moon, who is the uncle of DSS Director Tammy Cagle. Family of the child chastised Moon after the meeting for participating in the vote.
Commissioners emphasized that their recommendation is not a reflection of whether they think the DSS employees are guilty of wrongdoing. Commissioners said that suspending the employees would protect the integrity of the ongoing investigation.
“It is not out of animosity,” said Commissioner Chairman Phil Carson. “We are just trying to do the right thing during this case and this investigation.”
Swain County commissioners met with the DSS board in closed session for more than an hour Thursday evening prior to commissioners’ vote. The meeting could legally be held behind closed doors since the discussion centered on personnel and a criminal investigation.
The DSS board will meet seperately at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, March 8, at the DSS office to discuss commissioners’ recommendation.
Two-dozen friends and family of Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn, a 15-month-old baby who died in January, waited outside during the duration of the closed meeting to learn what commissioners would do. Relatives say they had appealed to DSS to take Aubrey away from her caregiver, and had repeatedly complained of suspected abuse and neglect. The SBI is investigating whether DSS employees engaged in a cover-up to hide potential negligence on their part.
Deloris Taylor, a friend of the family, said DSS failures allowed Aubrey’s death to happen.
“There should be a full state investigation and DSS should be held accountable. I think they should face criminal charges,” Taylor said.
Taylor said Aubrey’s case should have been given more attention.
“They shouldn’t just shuffle the paper work,” Taylor said.
Several social workers came to the meeting and expressed their dismay that their agency was under attack. They pointed out the many dedicated social workers in Swain County who put their heart and soul into what is a very tough job.
“I think our county should be supporting our social workers a lot more,” said Alissa Lambert, a child social worker at Swain DSS for three years.
Lambert said the job was so stressful that she burned out and had to find another job.
“The stuff we have to deal with on a daily basis is really difficult,” Lambert said.
Lambert asked where the news media was the rest of the year and during their many fundraisers, from selling hotdogs to a softball tournament to a chili cook-off.
“Nobody sees the positive things we do, the hundreds of families we help on a daily basis,” said Tabatha Medford, a current DSS social worker. “I apply myself in my job every day.”
So far, only one of the employees named has been put on leave — Craig Smith, a social worker with the agency since 2006 making $35,000 a year, who was directly involved in falsifying the records turned over to investigators, according to an SBI search warrant.
Smith told investigators he was acting on orders from his boss. His account of events suggested that the director and program manager knew his report was fabricated — namely that the child had been seen by a doctor when in fact she hadn’t.
But Lambert questioned Smith’s story. She said that supervisors can’t check on the accuracy of every statement in every report.
Lambert said anyone the state sends into run DSS won’t understand working in a small town or the unique culture here.
The following statement was issued by the Swain County Board of Commissioners after the DSS board failed to take action Tuesday night to suspend employees named in an SBI investigation:
The Swain County Board of Commissioners is extremely disappointed with the actions of the Department of Social Services Board. During the last Commissioner’s meeting the Board asked the DSS Board to temporarily suspend employees that had been named in the investigation. This is a procedure that is followed in most Counties in North Carolina. It has never been the intention of the Board of Commissioners to accuse anyone of wrong-doing, but suspending the employees would help authorities with the State conduct an unbiased investigation and have more flexibility to do their job.
These suspensions would help DSS regain the trust of the community. The Commissioners feel that the DSS board members are not working for the citizens of Swain County. The DSS Board did not vote on this issue at their Tuesday night meeting. The Board of Commissioners feel that the needs of the children should have more priority than the needs of the Director or employees.
Therefore, 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 Swain County Department of Social Services board met for three hours Tuesday night (March 8) to discuss whether employees named in an investigation should be suspended with pay pending the outcome. The board failed to come to a consensus. A vote was not held, so it is not known which board members are on which side.
Only four of the five DSS board members were at the meeting.
The fifth, Robert White, was out of town on county business that could not be rescheduled. White is also a county commissioner.
Had White been there, it seems he would have been the tie breaker — and that the scales would be tipped in favor of suspending the employees. White has already publicly weighed in on the issue at a county commissioner meeting last week, where county commissioners formally called on the DSS board to take action. White seconded the motion and voted in favor of sending a letter to the DSS board recommending the employees be put on leave with pay.
The DSS board has not announced whether they will hold another meeting to settle the issue when White gets back in town. Their next regularly scheduled meeting is not until Monday, March 28, at 5:30 p.m.
The DSS board met Tuesday night behind closed doors since the conversation centered on personnel, which is exempt from open meeting requirements.
Family members of Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn, a 15-month-old who died in January, waited for three hours to hear the board’s decision. Family had repeatedly asked DSS to take the baby away from a great-aunt who was caring for her. DSS is being investigated by the State Bureau of Investigation for a subsequent cover-up including falsification of records, according to law enforcement documents.
Also waiting outside the meeting were family members of Craig Smith, a social worker directly involved in falsifying DSS records in an apparent cover-up. Smith is the only employee who has so far been suspended. However, in his testimony to investigators he said orders to fabricate records came from higher up.
Swain County commissioners voted 4 to 1 in a special meeting Thursday (March 3) to formally recommend that the Department of Social Services Board suspend with pay four employees involved in a State Bureau of Investigation probe into an alleged cover-up at the agency.
Commissioners emphasized that their recommendation is not a reflection of whether they think the DSS employees are guilty of wrong-doing. But commissioners said that suspending the employees will protect the integrityof the ongoing investigation.
The DSS board will meet at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, March 8, at the DSS office to discuss the commissioners recommendation.
Swain County commissioners met with three members of the DSS board in closed session for over an hour Thursday evening prior to the commissioners' vote. The meeting could legally be held behind closed doors since the discussion centered on personnel and a criminal investigation.
About 30 friends and family of Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn, a 15-month-old baby who died in January, waited outside during the duration of the closed meeting to see what commissioners would do. Relatives say they had appealed to DSS to take Aubrey away from her caregiver and complained of suspected abuse and neglect. The SBI is investigating whether DSS employees engaged in a cover-up following Aubrey's death to hide potential negligence on their part.
Several social workers came to the meeting as well and expressed their dismay that their agency was under attack. They pointed out the many dedicated social workers in Swain County who put their heart and soul into what is a very tough job.
So far, only one of the employees named has been put on leave – Craig Smith, a social worker with the agency since 2006, who was directly involved in falsifying records following the death of a child, according to an SBI search warrant. However, Smith told investigators he was acting on orders from his boss. Smith also told investigators that the DSS director and program manager knew he had never followed up on whether the child saw a doctor, even though he had fabricated a report to the contrary.
The Swain County Department of Social Services board has agreed to meet with the Swain County commissioners to discuss whether DSS employees and officials should be suspended due to an ongoing criminal investigation of the agency.
The two boards will meet at 5 p.m. Thursday, March 3, at the Swain County Administration Building.
A majority of the Swain County commissioners have asked the DSS board to suspend with pay employees named in a State Bureau of Investigation probe until the investigation is concluded.
So far, only one of the employees named has been put on leave – Craig Smith, a social worker with the agency since 2006, who was directly involved in falsifying records following the death of a child, according to an SBI search warrant. However, Smith told investigators he was acting on orders from his boss. Smith also told investigators that the DSS director and program manager knew he had never followed up on whether the child saw a doctor, even though he had fabricated a report to the contrary.
By Quintin Ellison and Colby Dunn • Staff writers
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is forced to rely on state social workers when it comes to protecting the tribe’s children from abuse and neglect.
That might change in the wake of Aubrey Littlejohn’s death. Some on the reservation are calling for the tribe to set up its own child- and adult-protection agency. Under the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, the tribe has the ability and federal right to do just that.
“I’ve been standing before tribal council ever since I’ve been in this position saying we need to take care of our own kids,” said Regina Rosario, program supervisor for Heart-to-Heart, a child-advocacy organization that works with tribal victims of child abuse.
This possibility was under discussion by tribal members and officials even before Aubrey’s death, Rosario said, in meetings held by the council’s social services committee.
Until — and if — that happens, the tribe and various county social service agencies must work together. Cases of suspected child abuse are handled by either Jackson or Swain counties for their respective portions of the reservation.
While Swain County DSS refused to speak to reporters about their role in Cherokee Bob Cochran, Jackson County’s DSS director, said the relationship between his county and the tribe is like any relationship in life: it requires good-faith work and thought.
“You have to maintain it,” Cochran said. “We also try to recruit and keep Native American staff. But, even when we can’t, we work hard to have our folks posted down there (in Cherokee) so they can develop those relationships.”
Cochran has six employees assigned to Jackson County’s portion of the reservation. Some are enrolled members of the Eastern Band. Five of the six Cherokee-dedicated workers report to an office each day that is physically located on the Qualla Boundary.
Although federal law does stipulate that states dealing with American Indian tribes must bear the cost of providing those services, Cochran said he was “quite confident the state is not paying for it entirely.” A variety of federal funding flows into the state’s social services programs, he said.
There are certain complexities for those agencies working with Eastern Band members. When children are removed from an unsafe situation, for example, DSS must try to place those children into Indian families.
“Basically, we work with the tribe in doing that,” Cochran said. “But … I do have the discretion, if I disagree with a recommendation of the tribe, to place the child elsewhere.”
A court can overrule a DSS director’s decision.
Usually, it doesn’t come to that, Cochran said. The tribe and DSS generally find mutually satisfactory care situations. DSS workers and Cherokee’s Family Support Services conduct joint house studies, and are comfortable working closely together, Cochran said.
David Simmons of the National Indian Child Welfare Association said that the agency’s work has shown, however, that tribally run child protective services are more successful at locating and dealing with neglect and abuse than their state or local counterparts.
This, said Simmons, isn’t because state agencies are always sub-par or lacking in their dealings with tribal children, but because tribal agencies are able to take a more tailored, culturally oriented approach that larger agencies just can’t.
“They have knowledge about the community that the state or county program is not going to have access to,” said Simmons. “They’re going to know more quickly, be more knowledgeable about what kinds of interventions are going to be successful. They have a better success rate, usually, at being able to develop resources. They take more cultural approaches to the work.”
Simmons, however, also notes that it’s impractical to expect all tribes to take up their own DSS work.
“Child protective services is one of the more expensive services to operate,” said Simmons. “You can’t do it halfway, too many things rely on that.”
The tribe hasn’t formally announced whether it intends to reassess the relationship with local DSS agencies, but Rosario said she intends to reintroduce the idea of tribal child protection at this month’s tribal council meeting.
The Indian Child Welfare Act is a federal law that governs the relationship between state social-services departments and Native Americans. The act includes the following language:
• Nothing in the act shall be construed as preventing the emergency removal of an Indian child in order to prevent imminent physical damage or harm to that child.
• The act specifies tribal courts have exclusive jurisdiction of children who reside on the reservation. If the child does not reside on a reservation, the jurisdiction must be transferred to tribal court.
• In an action leading to a foster care placement or in any termination of parental rights action affecting an Indian child who doesn’t reside on the reservation, the parents, guardian or custodian may petition for transfer of jurisdiction to a tribal court.
• At any time during proceedings of a foster care placement, the Indian custodian and Indian tribe have the right to intervene in the proceedings.
Relatives of a Cherokee child who died in January are publicly calling for the suspension of the Swain County Department of Social Services’ director and program manager, as well as other employees named in a State Bureau of Investigation probe into an alleged cover-up at the agency.
Nearly two-dozen family members of Aubrey Kina Marie Littlejohn came to the Swain County Commissioners meeting Monday (Feb. 28) to make their case. Speakers told commissioners that public confidence in DSS has been severely shaken. They said suspending those in charge, including Director Tammy Cagle and Program Manager T.L. Jones, will help repair the agency’s credibility in the community.
“People do feel a little tense not knowing what is going to happen with these same people still sitting in the positions that they are in,” said Ruth McCoy, a great aunt to Aubrey.
Though commissioners have no authority to suspend DSS employees directly, they could implore the DSS board to take action.
Three of the five Swain County commissioners openly agreed to do so, and a fourth seemed to indicate possible support as well.
Only Commissioner Steve Moon, who is the uncle of DSS Director Tammy Cagle, said he disagreed with suspending the employees. Moon argued with McCoy, who was speaking on behalf of the family, who are members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
Several DSS employees attended the commissioners’ meeting, including Cagle and Jones. The cramped quarters — only two tightly packed rows of folding chairs — created standing room only.
DSS officials seemed to know that questions regarding their employment would be broached. DSS Attorney Justin Greene addressed commissioners at the outset of the meeting, preemptively putting them on notice that the authority to make personnel decisions rests “exclusively” with the DSS board of directors and not the county commissioners.
Commissioner David Monteith was the first to weigh in after McCoy sat down.
“I myself would like to suggest to the commissioner board that these other people who have been allocated in this be dismissed with pay until charges are either brought against or cleared. I think it would be better for the whole county if this would happen,” Monteith said.
Monteith suggested the commissioners write a letter to the DSS board with a recommendation to that effect.
A DSS worker who came to the meeting offered a rebuttal from the audience.
“Excuse me, can I ask something?” she said. “How will the agency run?”
Monteith replied that replacement staff could be sent in from the state level. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, the umbrella agency over county DSS units, has offered to provide support and resources should Swain County need help, Monteith said.
DSS Board Chairman Jim Gribble countered that their board didn’t have the authority to meddle in personnel when it comes to rank-and-file employees.
“The only position the board can appoint is the director. We could appoint a temporary director,” Gribble said.
“I think that would be a start,” McCoy answered.
“Close down the DSS? Is that a start?” Moon asked.
McCoy said the state would send personnel to help run the agency if needed.
“It won’t bring Aubrey back,” McCoy said. “But you are going to see there are going to be more people come forward.”
“No, it won’t bring her back,” Moon said.
It soon became clear Moon was in the minority, however.
Commissioner Chairman Phillip Carson said he supported sending a letter to the DSS board calling for the suspension of employees involved in the SBI investigation.
“In my opinion that would be the fair thing to do until the investigation is over with,” Carson said.
Commissioner Donnie Dixon agreed.
Gribble pointed out that the DSS board won’t meet until the end of March.
“Would they consider a special session?” asked Commissioner Robert White.
Carson turned to Gribble and reiterated the question.
“Would you have a special session?” Carson asked.
Gribble pointed out the DSS board has already made a unanimous decision on how to proceed, and for now that means waiting on the outcome of the investigation before making any personnel changes.
“We felt like the ongoing investigation would yield more evidence on personnel matters than we could obtain by having our own personnel investigation, so we chose not to do a personnel investigation,” Gribble said.
He suggested the commissioners and DSS board meet to talk about the issue behind closed doors.
McCoy said if that happens, Moon should abstain from the discussion and a vote on the matter since DSS Director Tammy Cagle is his niece.
That’s when yet another DSS employee spoke from the audience.
“It is my understanding that our director is not directly involved in the investigation,” the DSS worker said in defense of Cagle. “You would suspend that person, who gives the whole agency direction?”
Carson said he was not passing judgment on guilt or innocence, but was trying to protect the integrity of the investigation.
“It needs to be investigated with no complications,” Carson said. “There is a procedure to investigations and sometimes it is just better to set everyone involved aside.”
Monteith asked whether any DSS employee has been suspended so far. Several DSS workers who came to the meeting began nodding and saying “yes,” but DSS Attorney Justin Greene jumped up and said they could not comment on an employee’s personnel status. However, the employment status, including a suspension, of a state or county employee is in fact public record under the N.C. Public Records Law, according to N.C. Press Association Attorney Amanda Martin.
Several sources who did not want to be identified have told The Smoky Mountain News that Craig Smith, the case worker assigned to Aubrey’s case, has been suspended. However, Smith claimed to investigators he was acting on orders when he fabricated DSS records (see related article.)
DSS Director Tammy Cagle and Program Manager T.L. Jones have not spoken to reporters since the investigation became public. Cagle did read a brief written statement at the commission meeting Monday.
“I want to ensure the citizens of Swain County that the staff of Swain County Social Services has been faithful and diligent in our duties to protect children and we will continue to do so,” Cagle said.
Last week, Greene made a similar statement to media.
“We hope this doesn’t dissuade the public from seeking services or making reports to protect the adults and children of this county,” said Greene.
But Angie Rasulo of Swain County said the allegations don’t exactly inspire confidence in the public.
“How are the people going to feel safe?” Rasulo asked.
Rasulo had an appointment at DSS the day it was raided by the SBI. She was told to come back another day. Rasulo shared what she said was a common sentiment in Swain County, that DSS is not responsive to the community. She hopes the agency sees a clean sweep.
“It’s terrible that a girl had to die to make a change,” Rasulo said. “I hope they are held accountable. They need to clean house.”
Gribble said Swain DSS has asked the state to review all pending child protective services cases to make sure they are being handled properly.
Aubrey Littlejohn’s family members weren’t convinced, however.
“How many other families are going to want to go to DSS? People will think ‘Why should we bother because they aren’t going to do anything,’” Leighann McCoy said. “How can you let them get away with this?”
The Swain County Department of Social Services falsified records relating to the abuse and neglect of a 15-month-old baby who later died, according to an investigation by the Swain County Sheriff’s Office and the State Bureau of Investigation.
The specific charge being investigated is “obstruction of justice being infamous, done in secrecy and malice, and/or with deceit and intent to defraud.”
The social worker who handled the child’s case, Craig Smith, altered his reports, fabricating a hospital visit and doctor’s exam that never occurred, according to law enforcement statements. Smith claims he did so at the direction of his immediate superior, Candace Lassiter, according to a search warrant executed by the SBI at the DSS office in Bryson City.
The search warrant also suggests that the agency concealed records in its possession rather than turning them over to investigators.
DSS Director Tammy Cagle and Program Manager T.L. Jones met with Smith after he had falsified the reports but before they had been turned over to investigators, according to the warrant. Smith said Cagle told him at the meeting “we have to get everything in order and everything straight.”
The SBI seized computers and records from Swain County DSS offices last Tuesday (Feb. 22). Workers were put on lock down during the raid. People with appointments to see social workers or apply for benefits had to come back another day.
The Swain County Sheriff’s Office unraveled the alleged DSS cover-up while investigating the Jan. 10 death of Aubrey Kina Marie Littlejohn. Kina Marie was living with a great aunt, Lady Bird Powell, at the time.
Abuse and neglect are considered contributing factors, according to law enforcement records, but the investigation is still pending and no charges have been filed yet. The autopsy report is not yet final.
The investigation into Swain DSS was launched after Swain County Detective Carolyn Posey uncovered discrepancies in DSS records and found holes in the accounts from DSS social workers. Posey had initially been assigned to investigate Aubrey’s death and determine what, if any, charges should be filed.
Over the course of the investigation, Posey encountered delays getting DSS records. When she finally got the reports she found there were missing pages and other things that didn’t add up.
The child and caregiver are members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, but lived in Swain County. The tribe hired a private investigator, Danny Cheatham, to assist Posey in the case.
Posey and Cheatham interviewed several relatives and neighbors who told them they witnessed abuse and neglect of Aubrey while in Powell’s care. Relatives said they had repeatedly informed DSS of the situation, made reports and requested intervention but got no response.
But numerous DSS employees — from the rank and file to the director and manager — told Posey a different story, according to the search warrant.
“Investigators Posey and Cheetham have interviewed numerous persons who indicated that they witnessed physical abuse and neglect inflicted on the child and observed no food, a lack of heat and other inadequacies in the home environment. This information is in direct contrast to the information provided by the Department of Social Services’ employees: Misty Tabor, Craig Smith, Candace Lassiter, Angela Biggs, T.L. Jones and Tammy Cagle,” the warrant states.
Cagle is the director of DSS and Jones is the program manager.
Cagle and Jones told Posey they had turned over all their reports and files on Aubrey. But Posey believed the agency was withholding records and reports, according to the search warrant.
Once Posey and Cheatham discovered what appeared to be cover-up by Swain DSS, they alerted District Attorney Mike Bonfoey, who in turn called the State Bureau of Investigation.
Posey encountered significant and unexplained delays getting the DSS records for Aubrey. Posey began asking for the records immediately following the child’s death, but three weeks later had still not received them.
Posey then went to DSS and met with Program Manager T.L. Jones and DSS Director Tammy Cagle to find out what the hold up was.
But even then another two weeks passed before she got the records — a delay of five weeks after her initial request. By now, Posey had grown suspicious. That suspicion mounted as Posey realized the records were incomplete.
“Documents were missing and forms with sequential page numbers were not complete,” the search warrant states.
But it was a dubious account of a doctor’s checkup that proved the biggest red flag to Posey.
Powell was supposed to have Aubrey examined by a doctor following a complaint from relatives who saw the baby with bruises. When visited by social worker Craig Smith, Powell told him the bruises were the result of a fall down the stairs.
Smith told Powell to take the baby to the doctor for a checkup, but she never did. Smith failed to follow up with Powell on the outcome of the doctor’s visit.
Following Aubrey’s death, Smith claims his supervisor told him to go back and “fudge” the reports, according to the search warrant. Smith wrote a fake report recounting a conversation with a doctor who had done a checkup.
Here’s what the fabricated report said about that conversation:
“Smith asked (Dr. Toedt) how the visit went and she stated that she checked the child and didn’t find anything wrong with the child and stated the child appeared to be normal to her. Smith asked her if she could send him something stating what she had just told him. Dr. Toadt stated that wouldn’t be a problem and that she would type something up for him and fax it to him.”
Posey found the account troubling. For starters, Smith spelled the doctor’s name wrong throughout the report.
But as a licensed nurse herself, Posey knew that federal law prohibits doctors from giving out personal health information about patients over the phone. So she decided to call the doctor herself.
“Detective Posey found that there was no medical record documenting that Dr. Toedt had ever seen Aubrey Littlejohn,” the search warrant states. “Dr. Toedt told Detective Posey that she had never had a phone conversation with Craig Smith, and she had never seen or examined Aubrey Littlejohn.”
The very next day, Thursday, Feb. 17, Posey and Cheetham went to see Smith. When they asked him about his visit to Powell’s trailer, he told them the house was clean, that the floors had been mopped and even “smelled of Pine Sol cleaning solution.” He said Powell was feeding Aubrey crackers and juice, and that the home was “stocked with food.”
Smith told the investigators that reports of abuse were “unsubstantiated” and the case had been closed on Oct. 10.
When asked about the doctor’s visit, Smith repeated his story from the fake report. Posey and Cheatham then confronted Smith with what they knew, and Smith fessed up.
Smith admitted to fabricating the doctor’s visit and altering reports in the case file, but said that he did so at the direction of his immediate supervisor, Candice Lassiter. Smith said Lassiter came to him the week after Aubrey’s death and told him to change the records, including faking a doctor’s visit, according to the search warrant.
Smith also said he met with DSS Director Tammy Cagle and Program Manager T.L. Jones during the course of the law enforcement investigation.
“Cagle told Smith that we have to get everything in order and everything straight,” the search warrant says. “This was after Smith had altered and falsified his original narrative and after he had submitted the altered and falsified narrative to Lassiter.”
In the meeting, Cagle asked Smith why he hadn’t followed up on the doctor’s visit, according to Smith. Smith said he was then told to leave the meeting and his bosses stayed in the room.
By now, it was early February. Posey still hadn’t received the records from DSS.
Meanwhile, Cagle told Smith and Lassiter to go out and find Powell so they could question her about whether she ever took Aubrey to the doctor, according to the search warrant. Smith and Lassiter went to Powell’s trailer and to her sister’s house but had no luck. They came back and told Cagle they couldn’t find Powell, according to Smith’s statement in the warrant.
The following Monday, the SBI secured a search warrant from Superior Court Judge Brad Letts. Agents showed up at DSS shortly after the start of the workday the next morning.
The search warrant gave SBI agents sweeping authority to seize computers, hard drives, servers and data storage devices, including thumb drives and memory sticks in the personal possession of employees. The search warrant also stipulates that DSS workers turn over passwords required to open files or get into e-mail accounts.
Documents to be seized included case files, call logs, child services reports, time sheets, mileage records and even desktop calendars of employees.
In the search warrant, SBI Agent S. Ashe explained why computers had to be seized rather than inspected on site.
“Searching electronic or computer devices for criminal evidence can be a highly technical process requiring expert skill and a properly controlled environment,” Ashe wrote.
Even if DSS employees deleted incriminating files, it might be possible to recover them.
“Files, or at least traces of that file, can be recovered by forensic analysis techniques even after the file has been deleted by the user,” Ashe wrote.
Computer experts can recover “hidden, erased, compressed and encrypted files,” Ashe wrote, but sifting through the massive quantity of data on computers to find what investigators are looking for is a lengthy process.