Child fatality review in Swain case held up by state backlogWritten by Becky Johnson
More than a year has lapsed since 15-month-old Aubrey Kina Marie Littlejohn died on the floor of an unheated single-wide trailer in Cherokee one frigid January night, but it could be several more months before the state conducts a child fatality review required by law in such cases.
Swain County Department of Social Services alerted the state to the suspicious child death the day after Aubrey died in January 2011, but the mandatory case review hasn’t been started yet because of a statewide backlog. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services formally accepted the case for a child fatality review last April, but the review has not been scheduled yet, according to Lori Watson, a spokesperson for the state agency in Raleigh.
Ideally, a child fatality review can help prevent future tragedies. It is supposed to detect where social safety nets failed and whether there are cracks in the system that need fixing.
In Aubrey’ case, it seems there will be plenty to learn from such a review. Cops, neighbors, family members and social workers all came in contact with Aubrey’s caretaker and noticed red flags, from violent behavior and suspected drug use to poor living conditions and even visual signs of abuse.
The child fatality review is not intended to find fault, nor is it a witch-hunt to hold anyone responsible, Watson said. The state in particular is interested in whether new policies or protocols could have saved the child’s life.
It is a learning exercise that taps the insight of anyone who may have interacted with the child — teachers, daycare workers, pediatricians, friends, family and social workers — to determine what could be done differently in the future.
“They will bring all those people together that had been involved in that child’s life,” Watson said.
By design, the case review isn’t conducted on the heels of a child’s death.
“They try to plan them so they give the community an opportunity to heal and people can come back to the table and take an objective approach to looking at the case,” Watson said.
But, a year and counting is longer than it should be in an ideal world. It could be several more months yet before it is conducted.
Watson said the agency is facing a backlog of its child fatality reviews. Watson cited staff turnover and unfilled positions at the state level as reasons the agency got behind.
The child fatality review will likely determine why social workers had forcibly removed other children from the home where Aubrey was living but allowed Aubrey to stay. Social workers had documented inappropriate use of physical discipline against Aubrey when she was just a year old. In addition to bruises on Aubrey, there were also signs she wasn’t developing like a baby of her age should, but she was not being taken to the doctor for check-ups.
Cops had been to the residence multiple times, according to dispatch records. Neighbors witnessed violent behavior in the yard of the home and noted children fending for themselves.
Swain DSS records in baby’s death to remain sealed
Prosecutors in a second-degree murder and felony child abuse case in Swain County have sealed social service records for fear they could compromise the on-going investigation or the ability to prosecute the case.
Prosecutors have told the Swain County Department of Social Services not to release records that would normally be made public surrounding the death of 15-month-old Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn, who died more than a year ago. Ladybird Powell, Aubrey’s great-aunt and caretaker, was charged in connection with her death this month.
Since DSS records are highly personal — often revealing private aspects of family life, emotional state and financial status — they are all confidential.
There is an exception, however, when criminal charges surround a child’s death. In such cases, DSS is supposed to release a summary of the agency’s involvement with the child, describing whether social workers had the child’s well-being on their radar and what steps, if any, were taken to investigate or improve the child’s safety and care.
The district attorney’s office has the authority to block the release of the records if it is deemed a risk to the criminal case, however.
In this case, the prosecutor has done just that, citing the highly unusual circumstances of a separate yet parallel case against two social workers. The workers allegedly falsified records following the child’s death, presumably to conceal whether the agency properly followed up on complaints of abuse and neglect, according to a State Bureau of Investigation probe.
Whether social workers did their job or failed to intervene and protect Aubrey has been a source of heated and emotional controversy. The records, if released, would reveal whether social workers acted on reports of suspected abuse and neglect — assuming the records provide an accurate picture.
But releasing those records that describe DSS involvement in Aubrey’s case could compromise a fair trail in the separate case against the social workers, since their involvement — or lack of involvement — is at the heart of that case.
The release of records would “jeopardize the state’s ongoing investigation” and “jeopardize the state’s ability to prosecute” the case, the district attorney’s office told Swain DSS when blocking the release of the documents.