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.