The Jan. 10 death of 15-month-old Aubrey Kina Marie Littlejohn was an unspeakable tragedy, one compounded by the questions surrounding both the cause of death and the potential cover-up by employees of the Swain County Department of Social Services.
At this time, two needs are paramount: a speedy and thorough investigation by the SBI and the Swain County Sheriff’s Office; and just as important, an unwavering commitment to seek the truth — however ugly that might ultimately be — among Swain and Cherokee leaders trying to sort through familial and personal allegiances during the investigation of what could be a very serious crime.
Aubrey’s short life was beset by problems from the beginning. Her single mother, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is in jail awaiting sentencing on a federal drug charge. The mom left her infant to live with a great aunt, Lady Bird Powell, when the baby was just months old. Both law enforcement and Department of Social Services had been called to Powell’s home several times prior to the winter night in January when Aubrey was brought to the Cherokee hospital cold and lifeless.
Swain law enforcement authorities investigating Aubrey’s death became suspicious not just of the cause of death but also of the activities of Swain DSS. It took DSS five weeks to turn over their case files on Aubrey to law enforcement. According to warrants, a DSS worker admitted falsifying reports in order to cover up the agency’s missteps in looking into Aubrey’s death. How high up the DSS chain of command the possible cover up goes is what the SBI and Swain law enforcement authorities are still looking into after seizing DSS files and computers.
There won’t be any winners as this case proceeds. Powell may be guilty of neglect or abuse in the child’s death, and DSS employees may also be guilty of crimes. Families and friends in Swain and Cherokee are lining up on opposing sides. County commissioners in Swain have asked for the resignation of DSS board members, and three of them have quit and done so while criticizing commissioners. The five DSS workers named in the criminal investigation have been banned by Cherokee from working on cases involving children on the Qualla Boundary.
Justice, when it comes, will be painful — but less so than the short life of young Aubrey. The one ray of hope, in the end, is that what will emerge from this unnecessary tragedy are lessons that might save the life of the next innocent child placed in a similar situation.