Social safety net failed Cherokee baby

Additional evidence has surfaced indicating Swain County social workers failed to act on reports of alleged abuse and neglect of a Cherokee baby who later died.

Court papers reveal that Swain County social workers had reports of physical abuse of Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn by her caregiver, Ladybird Powell, months before she died in January.

The papers were filed by the Jackson County Department of Social Services in a custody case involving another child in Powell’s care.

Powell’s treatment of Aubrey and her still unexplained death weighed heavily in a petition filed by Jackson DSS to have an 8-year-old boy removed from Powell’s custody.

Although Powell lives in Cherokee, the tribe does not have its own agency to handle child abuse and neglect cases. Instead, the child welfare divisions of Jackson and Swain DSS manage cases on tribal land. Previously, Powell lived on the Swain County side of the reservation, so the case fell to Swain DSS.

But Powell has moved, as has the 8-year-old boy, who now lives on the Jackson County side of the reservation, giving Jackson DSS jurisdiction.

The petition filed by Jackson County DSS reveals the following:

• Swain DSS initiated an investigation into suspected child abuse and neglect involving Aubrey in November 2010. (This was the second such investigation in three months. Until now, however, only the first had been made public.)

• The report of abuse made to Swain DSS in November claimed that Powell “smacked Aubrey in the mouth when she cried and jerked Aubrey around,” and “knocked Aubrey off a bed intentionally.”

• Swain County social workers visited Powell’s home three days after the report came in. They had Powell sign a statement saying, “Ladybird will not physically punish Aubrey.” Aubrey was 13 months old at the time.

The first investigation of abuse and neglect by Swain DSS was in September. In that case, Powell claimed bruises on Aubrey were the result of a fall down the stairs.

A DSS worker deemed the report of abuse “unsubstantiated” after one visit to the home. While he told Powell to take Aubrey to the doctor and have her injuries examined, he never followed up to see what the doctor found — or whether the doctor’s visit even took place. He later fabricated a report claiming Aubrey had been seen by a doctor when in fact she never had, according to law enforcement records.

Swain County DSS is under investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation for an alleged cover-up. An interim director has been brought in, and three DSS board members have been replaced.

Ruth McCoy, one of Aubrey’s great-aunts, said there were other complaints from relatives ignored by Swain DSS — one of which she observed firsthand.

In November, McCoy heard from a relative that DSS had shown up at Powell’s trailer to take away a 10-year-old boy who was living there at the time. McCoy drove over to the trailer and implored the DSS workers to remove Aubrey as well. There was no heat in the trailer, and it was obvious to the social workers, McCoy said.

“The social workers were sitting there on the couch with their hands clasped between their legs to keep warm,” McCoy said.

One of them was Swain DSS Program Manager T.L. Jones, second in command at the agency. Jones even went out to his vehicle to get a jacket, McCoy said. Meanwhile, Aubrey was dressed in a jacket and toboggan inside the trailer. McCoy asked if Jones was going to take Aubrey, too.

“I said ‘What about her?’ and he said, ‘That’s another case.’ They were removing a 10-year-old and there was no heat but they didn’t take her,” McCoy said.

The night of Jan. 10 when Aubrey died, emergency room doctors at Cherokee Indian Hospital recorded her core body temperature as only 84 degrees, according to law enforcement records.

The reason for removing the 10-year-old was documented as drug and/or alcohol use by the caregiver, according to a Swain DSS report. The caregiver listed on the report was the boy’s biological mother, Mel Toinetta, who was living at the trailer with Powell.

The 10-year-old was placed in the care of McCoy.


Autopsy still pending

Doctors at Cherokee Indian Hospital the night Aubrey died suspected drugs may have been in the baby’s system and contributed to her death, according to the Jackson DSS petition.

No charges have been filed against Powell in connection with Aubrey’s death. An autopsy report, including a toxicology report, is still pending. The autopsy and toxicology report have been completed, but have not yet been reviewed and cleared for public release. The Smoky Mountain News has filed a request to receive a copy of the report when it is made public.

It appears Swain DSS was waiting for the results — which should clarify a cause of death — before deciding what to do about Powell’s custody of the 8-year-old boy.

The day after Aubrey’s death, a Swain DSS worker visited Powell’s trailer to check on the boy. Powell had legal custody of the child since he was 2. Recently, he had been living with Powell on and off, but seemed to be spending more time lately at the home of Powell’s ex-husband.

That must have seemed preferable to the case worker, as she wrote in her report that the boy should live with Powell’s ex-husband rather than Powell “until notified by DSS.” But that was crossed out and replaced with “until the toxicology report is in.”

Powell made derogatory and threatening comments to Swain social workers over the pending toxicology report, including that she would make them “eat the results when they come back negative,” according to the court petition.

The boy’s school expressed concern over the informal arrangement that placed the boy with Powell’s ex-husband. Since Powell still had legal custody, the school had nothing on file to prevent her from picking the boy up.

Jackson DSS apparently does not approve either, deeming the temporary placement with Powell’s ex-husband an inappropriate child-care arrangement, according to the petition filed by Jackson DSS alleging neglect of the boy.

The petition states that the boy “lives in an environment injurious to the juvenile’s welfare.”

Swain commissioner got DSS aid while niece was agency’s director

A county commissioner got financial aid from the Swain County Department of Services last year while his niece was serving as the DSS director, prompting the development of a new conflict of interest policy.

The new policy prohibits the DSS director from approving benefits for family members. At least three family members of DSS Director Tammy Cagle got financial payments from the agency — including her uncle, County Commissioner Steve Moon.

Cagle’s role in approving the benefits was questioned by the DSS board last October but they found no wrongdoing, according to board members.

“The board met and we reviewed each instance, and we found no illegalities concerning either state or federal policies. We reviewed it very carefully, but everything was above board,” said Bob Thomas, a former DSS board member. “It was maybe a question of judgment, but there was nothing illegal about anything that was done.”

Moon received financial assistance from DSS after his house burned down last year. Moon said he does not know whether Cagle personally signed off on the aid. His wife made the application, he said. Moon owns a tire store and his wife has a job with the school system.

Cagle was recently suspended with pay due to an unrelated investigation of the agency by the State Bureau of Investigation. DSS workers have been accused of a cover-up following the death of a Cherokee baby in an attempt hide potential negligence on their part.

Moon was the lone county commissioner who believed Cagle should remain in her post during the SBI investigation. County commissioners voted 4 to 1 to call on the DSS board to put Cagle on administrative leave after she was named in a search warrant. Moon did not recuse himself from the vote even though Cagle is his niece.

The names of Cagle’s other family members who received benefits, and the amount they received is not public record.

Cagle’s home phone number is not listed. Attempts to contact her through DSS’ attorney were unsuccessful.


Change in policy

Minutes of a DSS board meeting last October show the board discussed the issue in closed session, citing confidential personnel matters as the reason for closing the meeting.

Upon coming out of closed session, however, the board announced that Cagle had done nothing wrong. The board passed a resolution affirming support for Cagle.

“The Swain County DSS board fully supports the director in performing the duties as required by the county, state and federal guidelines,” the resolution stated.

Cagle then “expressed her appreciation of the board’s support,” according to the minutes of the meeting.

The following month, however, the board passed a conflict of interest policy that prohibits the director from approving assistance for family members or signing their benefit checks.

“At no time will the Director be involved with the decision making process of determining eligibility for any program,” the new policy states.

Family members of the director must apply through the same outlets as the public would — namely with the supervisor over the specific aid program they are applying for, whether its food stamps or one-time emergency rent assistance. In addition, the program manager, who serves as second in command for the agency, must approve the benefits and sign checks made out to the director’s family members.

The purpose of the policy was to prevent Cagle from being in a situation where she would have to explain or justify herself, according to Jim Gribble, a DSS board member at the time.

“We just wanted to remove any suspicion toward her for approving anything for her family,” Gribble said.

The conflict of interest policy was approved by the board in November and devised with input from a state DSS liaison.

Thomas said the same protocol should extend to any DSS worker.

“Anything involving any employee’s family needed to be served by someone other than a family member,” Thomas said.

Thomas and Gribble said the issue was first raised by the county manager or county commissioners, who expressed concerns about benefits being paid out to Cagle’s family members.

“There were a couple questions raised by commissioners as to whether assistance given was legal or not,” Thomas said.

Gribble said the questions were raised by the county manager.

While the DSS board cleared Cagle, it does not appear the DSS board independently verified whether the particular family members qualified for the benefits.

When asked if they were eligible, Gribble said “I assume so,” but added that, “The board doesn’t do eligibility.”

Since the specific benefits are not public record, it is not certain what aid program Moon tapped after his house burned down.

Moon said it was emergency assistance. However, he would not be eligible for that program according to the guidelines. Emergency assistance provides money “for families in short-term financial crisis due to unusual circumstances,” but the household must have a child under the age of 18 and be living below the poverty level, according to the eligibility guidelines.

Interim director takes charge of Swain DSS amidst ongoing investigation

An interim director is now at the helm of the Swain County Department of Social Services, bringing to the table an impressive resume with a focus on child welfare.

“That was real important to us,” said Georgianna Carson, a newly appointed DSS board member.

Jerry Smith served as a DSS director for 25 years in three different counties, including a year as president of the North Carolina Social Services Association. He also worked as the director of a children’s home after retiring from DSS and has written two books about foster homes and orphanages.

Smith’s background in child welfare is notable given the controversy surrounding the embattled agency. He is stepping in for former director Tammy Cagle, who was put on administrative leave with pay during an investigation into the death of a Cherokee baby. DSS failed to remove the baby from her caretaker and later conspired to cover up their own negligence, according to law enforcement records.

Four of the five DSS board members are new following resignations of former board members in the wake of the controversy.

Smith’s past experience as a DSS director is also critical. He knows the intricacies of the agency — with its maze of state and federal funding formulas and stacks of manuals that prescribe state and federal laws and policies.

“He is going to be a real asset for Swain County,” Carson said.

Smith was brought on board just two days after Cagle was put on leave. County leaders already had been in contact with the state Department of Health and Human Services to help identify a candidate to take over the agency.

The DSS board can’t say when, or if, Cagle might return to her post, or how long Smith will remain in place.

“He is going to be here as long as we need for him to be. I feel for sure it will be several months,” Carson said.

The agency is conducting its own internal investigation independently of the SBI, according to Justin Greene, the attorney for Swain DSS. That internal investigation will presumably determine whether any employees should be disciplined or terminated.

For now the county is having to pay Smith’s salary on top of Cagle’s, who is only on administrative leave. The county has a contract with an executive staffing firm for Smith’s services at the rate of $60 an hour, a portion of which the firm likely keeps as commission. That translates to an annual salary of $124,000.

As for the SBI investigation, no one knows when it will end.

“There is no way for us to speculate how long the investigation may take,” said Jennifer Canada, a spokesperson for the N.C. Department of Justice.  “Once it is complete, the SBI will turn over a report of its finding to the local district attorney for review. The DA will determine whether to file any charges.”

Carson said the death of the baby in January is a tragedy and needs a thorough and unbiased investigation, but it should not define DSS.

“Justice has got to be served, but at the same time we have got to mend fences,” Carson said. “I think people have gotten so focused on this one issue they have forgotten that this agency does so many things for the people of Swain County. We have so many good employees.”


Other DSS changes

Meanwhile, the chain of command for DSS Attorney Justin Greene will be altered. He will answer directly to the DSS board rather than the director. The SBI investigation and the turmoil leading up to Cagle’s suspension revealed the potential for conflicts of interest if Greene is under the director’s command.

The DSS board meets the last Monday of the month at 5:30 p.m. The old DSS board would only allow members of the public to speak if they requested to do so in writing two weeks prior to the meeting, and even then they could be turned down if their topic wasn’t considered fitting. While county commissioners and town boards are required by law to have public comment periods, appointed bodies like the DSS board are not.

Nonetheless, the new board has changed the policy and will allow anyone to speak up to five minutes.

“We know we are not elected officials, but at the same time we are there to serve the people of Swain County and we didn’t want to seem like we were being aloof or unable to be contacted if need be,” said Carson.


Who is Swain’s interim DSS director?

Jerry Smith has his masters in social work from UNC-Chapel Hill, considered among the best in the field nationally. From 1973 to 1997 he served as a DSS director in Washington and Wilson counties in North Carolina and Tazewell County in Virginia. He served as president of the N.C. Social Services Association in 1990. After retiring from DSS work, he was the director for two years at Holston Methodist Home for Children in Knoxville, Tenn., and has continued to provide services there as a trainer. He is the author of two books about foster homes and orphanages.

New board and new director take reins at Swain DSS amidst SBI probe

The director of Swain County Department of Social Services has been put on leave with pay following a nearly clean sweep of the DSS board.

A newly constituted DSS board placed Director Tammy Cagle on “nondisciplinary investigative status to investigate allegations of performance or conduct deficiencies” following a unanimous vote of the DSS board Monday (March 28).

DSS plans to hire an interim director by the week’s end, according to Robert White, a Swain County commissioner and new member of the DSS board. The DSS board will meet Wednesday to consider a person for the post.

White, a former school superintendent, said the entire situation has been very difficult, in fact the most difficult he has ever faced. White said he hopes it can be resolved sooner rather than later.

Swain DSS is under investigation for an alleged cover-up following the death of a Cherokee baby, Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn. Relatives had repeatedly warned DSS of suspected abuse and neglect by the baby’s caretaker, but DSS failed to take action and later doctored records to hide any negligence on their part, according to the law enforcement investigation.

So far, no charges have been filed against Aubrey’s caregiver in connection with her death, nor have charges been filed in the obstruction of justice investigation into DSS.

Despite public demands that those employees named in the investigation — including the director — be put on leave with pay pending the outcome, the former DSS board reached an impasse on whether to do so.

Swain County commissioners condemned the former board for failing to take action and called for them to resign.

Four of the five DSS board members are now brand-new through a combination of local and state appointments: Georgeanna Carson, Tom Decker, Sarah Wachacha and White. Only Frela Beck remains from the previous board.

The DSS board only has hiring and firing authority over the director. However, an interim director once appointed could put the remaining employees named in the investigation on leave.

Family members of Aubrey thanked the new DSS board for taking the allegations seriously.

“I know it is just the first step to getting where we need to be, but it takes a lot off our shoulders to know somebody is taking this seriously,” said Leighann McCoy, one of Aubrey’s family members who attended the meeting of the new DSS board this week.

Ruth McCoy, Aubrey’s great-aunt, feared the SBI probe would be hampered if those in positions of authority named in investigation remained in their job.

“Now maybe people will step forward and start speaking,” McCoy said.

Tribe asks Swain DSS to send different social workers

Swain County social workers and supervisors named in a State Bureau of Investigation probe are no longer welcome to work child welfare cases on tribal land.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians asked the Swain County Department of Social Services last week to send other workers instead when dealing with cases on the Qualla Boundary.

Swain DSS is under investigation for an alleged cover-up following the death of a Cherokee baby. Relatives had repeatedly warned DSS of suspected abuse and neglect by the baby’s caretaker, but DSS failed to take action and later doctored records to hide any negligence on their part, according to the law enforcement investigation.

An SBI search warrant named five employees, including the DSS Director Tammy Cagle and Program Manager T.L. Jones. Despite public demands that those employees be put on leave with pay pending the outcome of the investigation, only one has been suspended.

The rest remain in their jobs, which include duties on the reservation — from caseworkers investigating alleged cases of abuse to Cagle attending child welfare committee meetings with tribal officials. That has created a source of tension in Cherokee.

“I think while we are in this investigative period we should ask these guys to step aside in their responsibilities until we can figure things out,” said Principal Chief Michell Hicks. “This is a high profile issue and in light of everything that has occurred, I think it is in the best interest of all related parties.”

The request came from the chief’s office and was run past the Division of Health and Human Services in Raleigh. The state umbrella agency claimed it didn’t have jurisdiction over the job duties and case assignments of Swain County social workers.

“Any decision regarding this request would be made by Swain County DSS management,” according to Lori Walston, a spokesperson for the state agency.

Swain DSS Attorney Justin Greene, who has served as a de facto spokesperson for the agency during the tragedy, said Swain DSS would honor the tribe’s request. The social workers named will no longer work on the reservation in any capacity, even testifying in tribal court in ongoing cases they were assigned to.

“Swain County DSS employees not involved in the investigation will replace those five DSS employees in all matters occurring on the Qualla Boundary so that the delivery of social services to the enrolled members of the Tribe continues unimpeded,” according to a statement by Annette Tarnawsky, the tribe’s Attorney General.

Swain County DSS has an agreement with the tribe to perform child welfare services on the reservation. Swain DSS is reimbursed for all the services it provides on the reservation.

Over half its total child welfare caseload  — and therefore half the budget — is tied to cases involving enrolled members, according to DSS reports.

Cherokee is pursuing the creation of its own child welfare team, which would handle cases involving enrolled members rather than using on Swain County DSS, according to discussions at a tribal council meeting this month. Swain DSS stands to lose considerable funding if such a plan goes through.


Official suspension may be coming soon

Relatives of Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn have been calling for the suspension of the social workers for four weeks, as have the majority of Swain County commissioners. Commissioners said their request has nothing to do with whether all employees named are guilty of wrongdoing, but is merely a matter of protocol to protect the integrity of the investigation.

But the DSS board, which holds the final say, reached an impasse on whether to suspend the employees. Commissioners were perturbed the DSS board failed to reach a decision and called for the board to resign. Three of the five indeed resigned, but commissioners then found themselves on the receiving end of public backlash from friends and family of the DSS board.

Two members remaining on the DSS board are Frela Beck, an enrolled member of the tribe, and County Commissioner Robert White.

Of the three vacant positions, one seat gets appointed by the county and two by the state Division of Health and Human Services.

County commissioners last week appointed Georganna Carson to the county’s vacant seat.

The state this week made its two appointments: Tom Decker, a teacher at Swain County’s alternative school, and Sarah Wachacha, a tribal member who works in administration at the Cherokee Indian Hospital.

A meeting of the newly constituted DSS board will be at 5:30 p.m. Monday, March 28, at the Swain DSS office. The board will presumably take up the issue of whether to suspend the employees in question until the investigation is concluded.

While the new board members will have to get up to speed on DSS policy, Decker said he is looking forward to the challenge and will not be distracted by the media attention surrounding the controversy.

“Once the new board sits down I am sure we will be able to work together well to do whatever needs to be done,” said Decker, who moved here 10 years ago. “I volunteered because I care about the people of Swain County and especially the children.”

Cherokee trust shaken in Swain DSS

Tribal members and leaders alike vented their discontent with Swain County’s handling of child welfare for Cherokee children at this month’s tribal council meeting.

The Eastern Band no longer wants to rely on Swain County’s Department of Social Services but instead is laying a framework for a new, tribe-operated child protective unit.

Their anger was in response to the death of 15-month-old Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn, who died in January despite repeated warnings by relatives to Swain DSS of suspected abuse and neglect. The department is now under investigation for possible missteps and a subsequent cover-up.

The Eastern Band doesn’t handle its own child protective services; the task falls to DSS agencies in neighboring counties.

That may soon change, however. Family members, community members and professional child advocates appeared before the council and implored them to bring child welfare in-house.

“Our priorities are not on our own people,” said Regina Rosario, director of Heart-to-Heart, a Cherokee child advocacy program. “We can realign priorities, and all it takes is just the will in this chamber right here.”

Principal Chief Michel Hicks, who said he had to tread carefully in light of the ongoing investigation, acknowledged that there were problems with the current set-up of child welfare services, and confirmed that “the fire is burning again” on an initiative dating back to 2007 to bring it under the auspices of the tribe.

Hicks said he’s pulled together a team of deputies and other officials to look into the feasibility of a child welfare unit, and that reports will be coming to council over the next few months.

Aubrey’s family also stood up to ask the community for support, putting their voice behind resurrecting the idea of tribal child protective services.

Ruth McCoy, Aubrey’s great aunt, with tears thanked the council for engaging a private investigator following the child’s death. Chief Hicks and Tribal Attorney General Annette Tarnawsky made the decision to hire the investigator to check into her death because of reservations about how the case had been handled. Case workers had visited the child’s home several times prior to her death, and state investigators are now looking into allegations that workers failed to follow up with Aubrey and then falsified records in the case.

“She can’t speak, so we have to speak for her,” said McCoy, who is heading a letter-writing campaign lobbying the state for a full investigation of Swain County child protective services, which has now been launched.

She too asked council and the chief about moving child protective services under the umbrella of the tribe, referencing a 2007 proposal by Hicks to do just that.

McCoy proclaimed this the time to take action in the wake of Aubrey’s death.

“Let’s do something about this and get some questions answered about what’s going to happen with our social service department,” said McCoy.

“The simple fact is we just want the truth to be told,” said Hicks. “We also don’t want to see this happen to another baby in our future.”


Tribal children at risk

Many members have questioned whether Swain County social workers take cases involving American Indian children as seriously as white children. The failure by Swain DSS to remove Aubrey from an unsafe trailer that lacked heat and had known drug activity underscores the concern, family members say.

“It’s unfortunate and it does bring question to what else may be sitting out there to where a job has not been done on behalf of our tribal memberships,” Chief Hicks said. “And that’s a huge question and that’s a huge issue that we have to get to the bottom of. It’s time to take a different approach on social services, without question.”

But Carol Maennle, a Swain County social worker, said their agency looks after Native American children the same as white children.

“Don’t think for a minute we don’t love and try to treat them the same way,” Maennle said during a Swain County meeting this week.

Swain County DSS stands to lose money if the tribe takes over its own child welfare cases. DSS receives more for services provided to Native American children than for other children. Reimbursement for social work involving Cherokee children comes from the federal government, which provides a higher level of reimbursement, while funding for other children comes from the state, which doesn’t pay as much.

Other community members asked council members to take action to improve social services, as well.

Council Member Teresa McCoy reported that at a recent community meeting in Big Cove, more than a few residents came forward to relay their own bad experiences with social services in both Swain and Jackson counties, and even more came forward to express similar grievances to tribal council.

“Obviously this issue has touched everybody on this boundary. We’re parents and we take it personally,” said McCoy.

Jasmine Littlejohn, Aubrey’s mother who is currently jailed on federal drug charges, called tearfully for DSS officials to be called to account, saying that she hoped her daughter’s death would not be in vain.

“I want to see that nothing else like this happens to another child,” said Littlejohn, in a jailhouse interview. “My daughter may have just saved other child’s lives.”

Littlejohn said she was confident that, had her daughter not been American Indian, she would have been given better treatment by DSS workers.

Tarnawsky’s office has encouraged members with complaints about social services to contact them, noting that they’ve been involved in the investigation from the outset.

“We just want to find out what happened to this child and see what steps we as a tribe need to make and to take so that our children are well-protected,” said Tarnawsky.

Other tribal council members also expressed support for the initiative to take some social services out of state hands.

Bill Taylor, who represents Wolftown, said moves should be made on meetings held nearly a year ago to discuss that very idea.

“I think it’s the consensus of everybody here that we need our own program,” said Taylor. “Who’s going to take care of our children better? Our own people. I think it’s time that we stop dragging it on, and let’s do something about it before this happens to another family.”

The chief, however, turned it back on the council, challenging them to take their own steps towards a more active role in the tribe’s next move on the issue.

“It’s time for us all to step up and do something about it,” said Hicks. “It’s not just on the chief’s shoulders. There’s 12 council members that can step up also.”

Crowd berates Swain commissioners, supports DSS board

A large crowd turned out at the Swain County commissioners meeting this week to voice support for the beleaguered Department of Social Services Board.

Supporters said local board members tasked with overseeing the agency have been unfairly criticized following the death of 15-month-old baby and a criminal investigation into an alleged cover-up.

DSS workers failed to heed complaints from relatives that the baby was in danger and later falsified documents to hide any negligence on their part, according to family members of the child and law enforcement documents.

County commissioners called on the DSS board to suspend employees named in the investigation with pay, including DSS Director Tammy Cagle and Program Manager T.L. Jones.

However, the DSS board was deadlocked on the issue after a three-hour meeting last week.

That prompted the commissioners to call for the resignation of DSS board members in a strongly worded statement sent to media outlets the following day.

“The commissioners urge all the current DSS Board members to immediately resign, so that these positions can be filled with people who are not afraid to put the best interests of children and families of Swain County first at all times,” the statement read.

Three of the five DSS board members resigned by week’s end.

But those who spoke out at the commissioners meeting Monday said the DSS board members have been blamed unfairly.

County commissioners were out of bounds in their statement, according to Betty Sandlin, one of several who gave commissioners a dressing down at the meeting. Sandlin called the press statement by commissioners “abominable,” “despicable,” “unethical” and “disgraceful.”

Sandlin said DSS board members are outstanding citizens, dedicated members of their church, and active in civic affairs.

“You had the unmitigated gall to suggest they don’t have any interest in the children in this community,” Sandlin told commissioners. “You made a colossal error in judgment. Many of us are beginning to wonder whether we made colossal errors in judgment when we voted for you last November.”

DSS board members also took to the podium to defend themselves, claiming they have been unfairly denigrated.

“To vilify the DSS board the way you did is absolutely inexcusable,” said Bob Thomas, a DSS board member. “These libelous insinuations are totally irresponsible, unacceptable and downright obscene.”

Thomas said he resigned not because commissioners asked him to but because he was “fed up and frustrated beyond description.”

DSS Board Chairman Jim Gribble, who suffers from a heart condition, said the controversy in recent weeks has taken a toll on his health, including sleepless nights and a loss of appetite.

“This was truly a most troubling episode in my life,” Gribble said.

Gribble said he has no apologies for how the board has handled the recent crisis.

The press statement by commissioners questioned whether DSS board members’ were putting other interests above those of the community at large and of children in particular.

“The board of commissioners feel that the needs of the children should have more priority than the needs of the director or employees,” the statement read.

Gribble said he was offended by the accusation.

“I am deeply, deeply troubled by the loss of a defenseless innocent child,” Gribble said. “I agreed to serve on this DSS board because I thought I could make a difference. I have an earnest desire for the safety and well-being of children.”


Deadlocked DSS board

Four of the five DSS board members met for three hours behind closed doors last week to debate whether to suspend Director Tammy Cagle and the other employees named. When they finally emerged to the waiting crowd — including family of the dead child and family of the social worker accused of falsifying records — they announced they had not been able to reach a consensus and directed any further questions to the DSS attorney.

While it is legal to discuss personnel decisions in private, public bodies such as the DSS board must vote in the open, allowing the public to witness where each person on the public board stands. This is intended to ensure a transparent, accountable and democratic form of government.

The DSS board never formally voted in public, but instead announced it could not reach a consensus.

With only four board members at the table, it would be easy for them to recognize who was on what side, and whether a formal vote would be futile. The fifth board member was out of town.

Board Chairman Jim Gribble would not reveal which of the board members were in favor of suspension and which were not.


Standard protocol

County commissioners asserted that suspending those named in the investigation is crucial to restoring public confidence in the agency and ensuring the integrity of the ongoing investigation.

DSS Board Member Thomas countered that in his eyes people are innocent until proven guilty.

“I refuse to compromise my convictions for the convenience of the situation,” Thomas said.

Thomas said DSS Director Cagle has the support of her staff, witnessed by 25 DSS employees who came forward to speak on their boss’s behalf as the board weighed whether to put her on leave.

Commissioners pointed out in the press statement that it is standard protocol for any government agency to suspend employees with pay during an ongoing investigation, regardless of guilt or innocence.

“It has never been the intention of the board of commissioners to accuse anyone of wrongdoing, but suspending the employees would help authorities with the state conduct an unbiased investigation and have more flexibility to do their job,” the statement issued by commissioners read.

According to commissioners, the state Department of Health and Human Services likewise wanted the employees put on leave with pay.

But several audience members at the meeting challenged that. They said they didn’t believe the state had recommended suspending the DSS employees and asked for proof.

In a public statement, Sherry Bradsher, the state director in Raleigh, said that personnel decisions ultimately rest at the local level. But she added that the DSS board should do what it takes to ensure public confidence in the agency.

“We have offered guidance and a strong reminder to the board of its responsibilities as defined by General Statute, which includes its authority over the director,” Bradsher said.

Gribble said the state made recommendations but no mandates on whether the employees should be suspended.


In the dark

County Commissioner Steve Moon was the lone commissioner who didn’t believe DSS employees should be suspended or that DSS board members should resign. Moon, who is the uncle of the DSS director, chastised the other commissioners for sending out the press statement without his knowledge. He learned of it when watching the news on television.

“Why was this done without telling me? I was totally out in the dark until I saw it on WLOS. No one called me. I had zero input on that decision. I would like to know why,” Moon said.

Moon blamed County Manager Kevin King, but King said he was acting at the direction of three of the five commissioners by sending the press statement. King, along with the three commissioners, were in Raleigh on county business at the time.

Commissioner Robert White was put in charge of calling Moon to let him know. White said he tried to call Moon but couldn’t reach him.

Moon also was upset that the DSS board members weren’t personally notified, but learned from reporters that commissioners were calling for their resignations. Moon apologized to the board members in the audience even though he wasn’t part of the decision.

“I am sorry. I am really, truly sorry it has come down to this,” Moon said, prompting an extended standing ovation from the large crowd. The crowd was so large the meeting was moved into a courtroom instead of the regular meeting room.

Speakers also lashed out at the media, blaming the press for negative publicity of the county.

“They are having a heyday,” Thomas said, coining the coverage a “media frenzy.”

Indeed, newspapers and television stations from across the region have reported on the raid of DSS offices by the State Bureau of Investigation and the investigation into the baby’s death.

Sandlin blamed the commissioners for “fueling a media circus” and portraying a “demoralizing” picture of the county.

“The snap judgment of a few irritated commissioners to make us a public spectacle only served to fuel the media and further hostilities,” Gribble added.

While the DSS board defended its name, family of the Cherokee baby who died reminded the audience why they were here in the first place.

“We are sorry your feelings got hurt, but you guys get to go home to your families, hurt feelings or whatever. When we go home, we are missing a member from our family,” Ruth McCoy, the child’s great aunt, said at the meeting.

While the alleged cover-up at DSS has gotten most of the attention, McCoy said the agency is equally at fault for leaving the baby in an unsafe home despite pleas by relatives to remove her.

“We are here because they didn’t do their job. None of this had to happen,” McCoy said.

Some speakers expressed their condolences to McCoy for the family’s loss.


Vacancies on the board

Following the resignation of three board members, the DSS board is short three members. Of those, one is appointed by the county commissioners and the other two by the state Department of Health and Human Services.

County commissioners voted this week on a replacement, selecting Georgianna Carson. Carson is the daughter of a long-time doctor in Swain County who helped found the hospital.

Commissioners were split on who to appoint, however. Commissioners Moon and White wanted to appoint Paul Crawley, owner of a soda fountain shop, but Commissioner Phil Carson, David Monteith and Donnie Dixon backed Georgianna Carson.

It could be the end of next week before the state makes its new appointments.

“It is always challenge in smaller communities finding people that are willing to serve and volunteer even under normal circumstances,” said Sherry Bradsher, director of state health and human services.

Given the tremendous publicity surrounding DSS in such a small community, appointments will take more careful consideration than ever, Bradsher said. For those who do volunteer, Bradsher wants to understand their reason for doing so, and ability to be in a tough spot.

“We want to be sure the people we appoint are going to be fair and good listeners and make the decisions that are appropriate for moving the agency and the county forward,” Bradsher said.


Timeline of recent events

• Thursday, March 3 — Swain County commissioners vote 4 to 1 for the DSS board to suspend with pay those named in an SBI investigation.

• Tuesday, March 8 — After a three-hour meeting, DSS board members are deadlocked over whether to suspend employees and announced no consensus.

• Wednesday, March 9 — County commissioners call for the resignation of DSS board members in a strongly worded press statement.

• Thursday, March 10 — Three DSS board members resign.


Related documents

Swain commissioners call for DSS board resignations
Jim Gribble and Bob Thomas resignation letters
Public statement by DSS Board Chairman Jim Gribble
Public statement by DSS Board member Bob Thomas
Read the warrant

Swain commissioners want DSS workers suspended

The state could step in to run the Swain County Department of Social Services if the top leaders are among those put on leave during a probe into an alleged cover-up.

Swain DSS falsified records relating to the abuse and neglect of a 15-month-old baby who later died, according to an investigation by the Swain County Sheriff’s Office and the State Bureau of Investigation.

The family of the child have asked those named in the probe, including the DSS director and program manager, be suspended pending the outcome of the investigation.

“I don’t think it is right for them to keep working,” said Leighann McCoy, one of the family members. “Look at all the lives they have in their hands. Their jobs are a matter of life and death.”

The Swain County commissioners have concurred, although they don’t have authority over DSS employees — that lies with a separate DSS board.

So last week, commissioners formally called on the DSS board to suspend the employees in a 4 to 1 vote at a special meeting. The lone “no” vote came from Commissioner Steve Moon, who is the uncle of DSS Director Tammy Cagle. Family of the child chastised Moon after the meeting for participating in the vote.

Commissioners emphasized that their recommendation is not a reflection of whether they think the DSS employees are guilty of wrongdoing. Commissioners said that suspending the employees would protect the integrity of the ongoing investigation.

“It is not out of animosity,” said Commissioner Chairman Phil Carson. “We are just trying to do the right thing during this case and this investigation.”

Swain County commissioners met with the DSS board in closed session for more than an hour Thursday evening prior to commissioners’ vote. The meeting could legally be held behind closed doors since the discussion centered on personnel and a criminal investigation.

The DSS board will meet seperately at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, March 8, at the DSS office to discuss commissioners’ recommendation.

Two-dozen friends and family of Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn, a 15-month-old baby who died in January, waited outside during the duration of the closed meeting to learn what commissioners would do. Relatives say they had appealed to DSS to take Aubrey away from her caregiver, and had repeatedly complained of suspected abuse and neglect. The SBI is investigating whether DSS employees engaged in a cover-up to hide potential negligence on their part.

Deloris Taylor, a friend of the family, said DSS failures allowed Aubrey’s death to happen.

“There should be a full state investigation and DSS should be held accountable. I think they should face criminal charges,” Taylor said.

Taylor said Aubrey’s case should have been given more attention.

“They shouldn’t just shuffle the paper work,” Taylor said.

Several social workers came to the meeting and expressed their dismay that their agency was under attack. They pointed out the many dedicated social workers in Swain County who put their heart and soul into what is a very tough job.

“I think our county should be supporting our social workers a lot more,” said Alissa Lambert, a child social worker at Swain DSS for three years.

Lambert said the job was so stressful that she burned out and had to find another job.

“The stuff we have to deal with on a daily basis is really difficult,” Lambert said.

Lambert asked where the news media was the rest of the year and during their many fundraisers, from selling hotdogs to a softball tournament to a chili cook-off.

“Nobody sees the positive things we do, the hundreds of families we help on a daily basis,” said Tabatha Medford, a current DSS social worker. “I apply myself in my job every day.”

So far, only one of the employees named has been put on leave — Craig Smith, a social worker with the agency since 2006 making $35,000 a year, who was directly involved in falsifying the records turned over to investigators, according to an SBI search warrant.

Smith told investigators he was acting on orders from his boss. His account of events suggested that the director and program manager knew his report was fabricated — namely that the child had been seen by a doctor when in fact she hadn’t.

But Lambert questioned Smith’s story. She said that supervisors can’t check on the accuracy of every statement in every report.

Lambert said anyone the state sends into run DSS won’t understand working in a small town or the unique culture here.

Swain commissioners call for resignation of DSS board

The following statement was issued by the Swain County Board of Commissioners after the DSS board failed to take action Tuesday night to suspend employees named in an SBI investigation:

The Swain County Board of Commissioners is extremely disappointed with the actions of the Department of Social Services Board. During the last Commissioner’s meeting the Board asked the DSS Board to temporarily suspend employees that had been named in the investigation.  This is a procedure that is followed in most Counties in North Carolina.  It has never been the intention of the Board of Commissioners to accuse anyone of wrong-doing, but suspending the employees would help authorities with the State conduct an unbiased investigation and have more flexibility to do their job.

These suspensions would help DSS regain the trust of the community.  The Commissioners feel that the DSS board members are not working for the citizens of Swain County. The DSS Board did not vote on this issue at their Tuesday night meeting.  The Board of Commissioners feel that the needs of the children should have more priority than the needs of the Director or employees.

Therefore, the Commissioners urge all the current DSS Board members to immediately resign, so that these positions can be filled with people who are not afraid to put the best interests of children and families of Swain County first at all times.

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