Ladybird Powell of Cherokee pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, two counts of felony child abuse and extortion. Powell was the child’s great-aunt. She was originally entrusted with the care of the toddler by the child’s mother, but when the mother tried to get the child back, Powell refused, demanding she turn over thousands of dollars.
More than two dozen family members of deceased Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn attended the Swain County court hearing Monday, in what was a highly emotional retelling of the tragic events the night of her death. Aubrey died when she was 15-months-old.
Aubrey was dressed in only a T-shirt and diaper when she was put to bed on a mattress on the floor that night. The trailer that was so cold witnesses recalled being able to see their breath, according to a summary of the circumstances surrounding Aubrey’s death presented in court by Assistant District Attorney Sybil Mann.
In preparation for trial, Mann had prepared a doctor’s testimony that hypothermia was the cause of death within a “reasonable medical degree of certainty.”
“Children who are 15 months of age, as Aubrey was, aren’t able to escape cold temperatures or put on warm clothing. They are entirely dependent on their caregiver for their wellbeing,” Mann said in court.
Aubrey’s short life in the care of Powell was not a good one, according to Mann’s summary of the case. Aubrey was malnourished and didn’t receive routine medical care or immunizations. She was underdeveloped from being strapped into a car seat or left in a baby pen for long periods of time. There were also signs of physical abuse.
Powell also pleaded guilty to the possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia that were found in her trailer the night of Aubrey’s death.
Powell was originally charged with second-degree murder in the case. The plea deal to a lesser charge avoided what could have been a risky jury trial for prosecutors based on circumstantial evidence, while still putting Powell away for a minimum of nine years.
Aubrey’s mother Jasmine Littlejohn, 22, said she has drawn strength from her family during the two-year ordeal of bringing Powell to justice for Aubrey’s death.
“It has been really hard and really tough. I am thankful for my family. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have been strong enough to make it through everything,” Littlejohn said.
Littlejohn cried through most of the court proceedings Monday, and said she is keeping the memory of Aubrey alive for her other two children, including her four-year-old daughter.
“She sees pictures. She goes to the grave. She knows she is her angel sister in Heaven,” Littlejohn said.
DSS cover-up case still pending
Family members suspected Powell of negligence and abuse while Aubrey was in her care, but were intimated by, and even fearful of, Powell. Family members appealed to the Swain County Department of Social Services (DSS) to intervene and remove Aubrey from Powell’s care on several occasions, but to no avail.
“This was a big step but just one step along the way,” Littlejohn said of Ladybird’s conviction. “DSS does need to be held accountable.”
Following Aubrey’s death, Swain DSS was the subject of a nearly yearlong probe by the State Bureau of Investigation for retroactively doctoring records to hide any negligence on their part, according to law enforcement records.
Two Swain County social workers are now facing felony indictments for an alleged cover-up, namely obstruction of justice and forgery for doctoring and concealing records.
In addition, the family of Aubrey has filed a civil lawsuit against Swain DSS. The suit claims wrongful death and blames DSS for gross negligence for failing to intervene or heed evidence Aubrey was not in a safe home.
“The next step in the family’s journey will be to bring justice to those employees of Swain County’s Department of Social Services, who may have contributed to her death and were involved in the shameless cover up of their own failures to protect this loving and innocent child from abuse,” according to a written statement issued by the family through their attorney, David Wijewickrama of Waynesville.
Wijewickrama said systemic change is needed not only within Swain County DSS, but to the policies and procedures of DSS agencies statewide.
“It is the prayer of the Littlejohn family that change will happen,” according to the family’s statement. “They want the current system to be overhauled so that these avoidable, unforgiveable negligent acts, needless abuse and otherwise preventable deaths can finally be stopped once and for all.”
Aubrey was an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, as was Powell. Cherokee does not have its own department of social services to handle child welfare cases, but instead relies on the social service agencies of neighboring counties. Following the death of Aubrey, Cherokee leaders are working to create their own child welfare agency to handle cases on the reservation and involving tribal children.
“I hope something does happen for other children on the reservation,” Littlejohn said.