Swain County DSS

Suspicious death of 15-month-old prompts SBI to seize Swain DSS computers

The State Bureau of Investigation raided Swain County Department of Social Services Tuesday, hauling off computers and records in an investigation allegedly tied to the death of Aubrey Littlejohn, a 15-month-old baby who died Jan. 10.

Littlejohn was brought to a hospital emergency room at 3:30 a.m. that day, according to an affidavit filed to establish probable cause by the Swain County Sheriff’s Department. The 15-month-old’s left arm was fractured, and she had a bruise on her forehead. Interviews of people staying at the residence, a singlewide trailer at 187 Kenneth Cooper Road off U.S. 19 between Cherokee and Bryson City, revealed the baby had been left strapped in a car seat for about 12 hours.

“During that time period, Aubrey was not removed from the car seat, given food or drink except for some bites from a hotdog and sips of a soda around 5 p.m. that evening. Aubrey’s diaper was not changed during this time period,” the affidavit stated.

When the baby was admitted to the hospital, she was dressed only in a t-shirt and a urine-soaked, feces-filled diaper.

“Infant was limp and very cold to the touch, skin color dusky blue,” according to the affidavit, which noted law enforcement interviews indicated “abuse and neglect” contributed to the baby’s death.

DSS workers had repeatedly been called to the home where the baby lived over the past year, but failed to remove her, The Smoky Mountain News was told.

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That’s what angers David Wijewikrama, an attorney in Waynesville.

“The Departments of Social Services across the state have had needless deaths occur multiple times a year because officials involved fail to follow up and do their jobs in the necessary manner,” Wijewickrama said.

The child had been living with her great-aunt, Ladybird Powell, because the child’s mother, Jasmine Littlejohn, was in jail on unrelated drug charges, he said. While they are members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Aubrey Littlejohn lived off the reservation in Swain County. That’s why Swain County DSS was the agency tasked with investigating claims of abuse.

According to Veronica Callahan, next door neighbor of Ladybird Powell, there were often lots of cars and trucks at Powell’s trailer at all hours of the night. Callahan said that children were outside the home as late as 2 a.m., and just this past fall several children were sleeping in a tent in the trailer’s backyard. Callahan said Powell would lock the children out of the house and not allow them back in.

She said sheriff’s deputies and DSS workers were at the house repeatedly responding to complaints.

“It’s horrifying,” said Callahan. “A baby has no voice. I really hope this doesn’t get washed away.”

Tuesday, Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, declined to comment directly on the investigation, but did say: “we remain committed to following through to ensure justice is served in this case.”

Additionally, Hicks said the tribe had hired a private investigator to help provide “a more comprehensive level of information in this case.”  

Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran said his department is investigating the child’s death, but has not yet determined what if any charges might be filed against her caregivers. District Attorney Mike Bonfoey also confirmed the existence of an investigation, but declined to comment further. State and local DSS officials failed to return phone calls requesting comment before press time.

Wijewickrama has been retained by the child’s mother, who, he said, is devastated by her baby’s death while in the care of a relative. She retained him in a civil capacity to look into possible negligence by DSS.

“She’s sad. She is devastated. She wants to see if there is a law that can be passed that forces DSS to immediately remove children if there are visible signs of abuse,” Wijewickrama said. “What makes me angry is that DSS went to the house of Ladybird (Powell) and removed other children. They knew she was abusive but failed to remove 15-month-old Aubrey and provide her a safe placement.”

Staff writer Quintin Ellison contributed to this report.

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