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Aubrey “Kina-Marie” Littlejohn

October 5, 2009-January 10, 2011


Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn, fifteen month old daughter of Jasmine Littlejohn, went home to be with the Lord early Monday morning on January 10, 2011.  She was preceded in death by an older brother, Khrystofor Hawk Rattler.

She is survived by two sisters, Marlene Queen of the home and Zoey Littlejohn of Birdtown;  two brothers of the home, Rajur Rattler and Jesse Queen; grandfather, Henry Queen Littlejohn, Jr., grandmothers, Mary Alice Bradley and Henrietta Littlejohn; great-grandfather, Henry Queen, Sr.; great-grandmother, Kina Q. Littlejohn; aunts, Joni Martin, Ruth McCoy, Caron Swayney, Mildred Cisneros, Annie Cucumber; Special Aunts, “BooBoo” Marlene Toineeta of the home, Tina Curry and Elizabeth McGill; uncles, John Martin, Henry Queen Littlejohn III, and Joseph Michael Murphy, and numerous loving cousins.

The family will receive friends at Bethabara Baptist Church on Friday January 14, 2011, beginning at 11 AM where the body will remain until the service hour of 2 PM on Saturday January 15, 2011.  The Rev. Bo Parris, Ray Kinsland, and Pastor Eddie Sherrill    will officiate. Burial will follow in the Sequoyah Cemetery on Locust Branch Road. 

 

Little Snowdrop

The world may never notice 
If a Snowdrop doesn’t bloom,
Or even pause to wonder 
If the petals fall too soon. 
But every life that ever forms, 
Or ever comes to be, 
Touches the world in some small way 
For all eternity. 
The little one we long for 
Was swiftly here and gone. 
But the love that was then planted
Is a light that still shines on. 
And though our arms are empty,
Our hearts know what to do. 
Every beating of our hearts 
Says of our love for you.

~ Author Unknown

Since these news stories are disappearing, I have compiled all the news stories that I can find about the death of 15-month-old Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn, in order to have a record of this case.  Kina-Marie’s case is a perfect example of CPS’s total disregard for the lives of the children they are obligated to protect.  Swain County DSS left this child in this home to die, and then after her death tried desperately to cover their asses by falsifying the record and forging documents….hmmmmm this sound familiar…oh wait, this is exactly what they did in our case, except we were lucky because my step-daughter survived.  

To say the least, Aubrey was a Cherokee Native, and the Cherokee Nation is not going to put up with the death of one of their children because of DSS’ failures, neglect, lies, breaking the law, and ass covering.  At least the Cherokee Nation’s voice has been heard in this case, unfortunately, children are dying across North Carolina and their voices are silenced everyday by the very people who failed to protect them… CPS!!

From the news reports on this case we know the following:

  • Court papers, filed by Jackson County DSS, reveal that Swain County DSS had numerous reports of abuse about Aubrey MONTHS before she died.
  • Swain County DSS began investigating Ladybird Powell about the suspect abuse and neglect of Aubrey in September 2010.
  • The first report of abuse was unsubstantiated after one visit to the home… at that time, we can gather that Aubrey was covered in bruises and had a broken arm, we will never know for sure because Ladybird Powell DID NOT take her to the doctor, and although the DSS worker performing the investigation, Craig Smith, “told Powell to take her to the doctor”…he apparently did not care enough to ensure that Powell actually took her to the doctor…he just closed the case and went on with his life.  After Aubrey’s death he fabricated a report claiming that he had spoken to the doctor who saw Aubrey at the hospital in a effort to cover his ass.
  • The November report of abuse alleged that Ladybird Powell, “smacked Aubrey in the mouth when she cried and jerked her around,” and “knocked Aubrey off a bed intentionally.
  • Swain County DSS DID NOT visit the home until 3 days after they received the report…a violation of North Carolina General Statutes, which requires an immediate response when the child is under pre-school age, and the report involves physical abuse!
  • And when they did visit that home, DSS had Ladybird Powell sign a safety assessment that said, “Ladybird will not physically punish Aubrey.” 
  • Aubrey was just 13 months old at the time!!!
  • One of Aubrey’s great aunts, Ruth McCoy stated publicly that family members made other reports of abuse that were ignored by Swain County DSS.
  • Ruth McCoy, upon hearing in November that DSS was at Powell’s home to remove a 10-year-old boy who was living there, drove over to Powell’s home and begged them to remove Aubrey too.  At the time the trailer had no heat and still they left Aubrey there!!!
Other news reports give a bigger picture into Ladybird Powell’s past, and scream, “do not leave a child in her care!”
 
  • Powell’s criminal record includes a conviction for assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill for stabbing a woman with a knife in a fight when she was 18, she said. The woman, she said, hit her in the head with a tire iron while they were drunk.
  • Powell in 2007 was ticketed for allowing a 14-year-old to drive on U.S. 19 with a 5- and 9-year-old in the car, according to records at the county courthouse. The teenager wrecked the car.
  • Powell later punched the child, according to court papers.
  • The traffic charge was dismissed after Powell agreed to plead guilty to assault for hitting the teenager.
  •  Powell’s own children were taken away by DSS but Kina Marie was left behind. According to relatives, two of Powell’s own children were removed from her home in August while Kina Marie, who was just a baby, stayed in her care. In November, a nephew living with Powell was also removed from the home, but once again Kina Marie was left there, according to relatives.
  • At least three relatives asked DSS to take the baby away from Powell, and had been to Swain DSS in person.
I wrote Swain County DSS and requested N.C.G.S. 7B-2902 disclosure about her case, of course they refused to release it, saying that the DA had blocked its release.  Denying disclosure in this case, does not ensure a “fair” trial for those involved in Kina-Marie’s death or the DSS cover up.  The only thing refusing to disclose DSS involvement is this case does is prevent needed change to DSS policy and laws, failing to release these documents prevents accountability and transparency in these cases…it protects DSS.
 
Look at the news articles on this case, the public is already aware of what these DSS workers did, the public is already aware of Ladybird Powell’s past, the condition of her trailer and the facts of this case…there is absolutely no reason to refuse to release these documents.  The fact of the matter is that we have children dying across this state due to the inaction and failure of DSS…and they are covering up.  Kina-Marie’s case is not the first DSS case where the records were falsified, fabricated and social workers and their superior’s lied and it won’t be the last.  It just happens to be one of the few cases where charges have actually been pressed and they are being held accountable and charged with their crimes.  This case is almost identical to my own case where the Wilkes County DSS failed to investigate our valid reports of abuse, lied, forged my husband’s signature to a safety assessment that NEVER occurred, fabricated evidence,  and blatantly broke the law.  The only real difference is that my step-daughter did not die…and all the social worker was arrested they later dropped the charges citing “not enough evidence”…the SBI was never even asked to investigate.
 

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

http://www.smokymountainnews.com/news/item/3276-fbi-investigates-infant-death-in-swain

Written by Becky Johnson

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

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.

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.

 

 

Swain child’s death prompts inquiry

Search at DSS may be linked

http://www.citizen-times.com/article/20110223/SPORTS05/302230025/Swain-child-s-death-prompts-inquiry

Feb. 22, 2011

Written by Jon Ostendorff

BRYSON CITY — Authorities are investigating the death of a 15-month-old girl who was left strapped into a car seat for 12 hours and given only few bites of a hot dog and sips of soda.

According to court papers obtained Tuesday, Aubrey Littlejohn died at Cherokee Indian Hospital at 3:54 a.m. Jan. 10 — about 15 minutes after being brought in by a great-aunt.

She was wrapped in a blanket and wearing only a diaper soaked in urine and feces and a T-shirt, according to an investigator’s statement in a search warrant.

The child was limp and cold to the touch, according to the court papers. Her temperature was 84 degrees, nearly 15 degrees below normal.

The Swain County Department of Social services had been involved with the child, according to the court papers.

Doctors gave her medications to combat possible narcotics exposure based on previous reports from DSS about her living conditions, according to the records.

Agents with the State Bureau of Investigation on Tuesday were searching county DSS offices, though Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran would not say whether the raid was related to the child’s death.

The child’s mother, Jasmine Littlejohn, was in jail at the time and is still in jail. Her attorney, David Wijewickrama, said Tuesday that DSS failed to take care of the child.

“Department of Social Services across the state have needless deaths occurring many times a year because officials involved fail to follow up and do their jobs in a necessary manner,” he said.

The attorney for the county’s DSS did not return a message left Tuesday. The department director also did not respond to a message seeking public records in the case.

No one has been charged in the death investigation, which is ongoing, Cochran said.

The child’s great-aunt, Swain County resident Ladybird Powell, brought the child to the emergency room. She did not return a message left at her home on Tuesday.

The emergency room doctor told sheriff’s Lt. Carolyn Posey hours later that Powell had said the child was fine when she put her to bed about 9 that night.

(Page 2 of 2)

“Medical staff had to forcibly remove the infant from Ms. Powell’s arms to provide medical care,” the lieutenant wrote in an application to search Powell’s home off Kenneth Cooper Road.

Powell told investigators she placed the child on a crib mattress about around 9 p.m. tin the master bedroom wearing the T-shirt and diaper. She covered her with a white comforter, according to the court papers.

Jamie Poe, who also lives at the home, told investigators the child was in her car seat for 12 hours that day until Powell put her to bed. She had a few bites of a hot dog that Powell was eating about around 5 p.m. that day.

He told investigators that her diaper wasn’t changed all day.

Investigators found drug paraphernalia — including pipes, straws and a pill grinder — along with a prescription bottle of Oxycodone at Powell’s home. They also found a car seat and an electric portable heater.

An autopsy at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center found the child had a fractured left arm, according to court papers. The autopsy is not complete, according to the state Medical Examiner’s Office on Tuesday.

The Citizen-Times has requested the autopsy report along with a child fatality report that DSS must provide when a child dies while in its care.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has hired a private investigator to “provide us with a more comprehensive level of information in this case,” Principal Chief Michell Hicks said.

The child was a member of the tribe.

“We are unable to comment further about this ongoing investigation, but we remain committed to following through to ensure justice is served in this case,” Hicks said in a written statement.

In an obituary in the Cherokee One Feather newspaper, Aubrey Littlejohn was described as the “15-month-old daughter of James and Lady Bird Murphy and biological mother, Jasmine Littlejohn …”

Family members could not be reached.

Staff writers Nanci Bompey and John Boyle contributed to this article.

 

Swain woman denies strapping child in car seat for 12 hours before girl died

http://www.citizen-times.com/article/20110223/NEWS01/110223024/Swain-woman-denies-strapping-child-car-seat-12-hours-before-girl-died

Feb. 23, 2011

Written by Jon Ostendorff

BRYSON CITY — The woman who cared for a 15-month-old who died in Swain County denies keeping the child strapped in her car seat for 12 hours and only feeding her bites of hotdog and sips of a soda.

Lady Bird Powell told the Citizen-Times that she doesn’t know what caused Aubrey Littlejohn’s death.

Her home in Swain County had heat and the child was well-cared for, she said.
She fed Aubrey a breakfast and lunch of baby food from a jar and the child was out of her car seat playing by her self the day before she died while Powell and her husband cleaned a house they were moving in to in Bryson City that day.

The child died at the Cherokee Indian Hospital in the early morning of Jan. 10.

She was not breathing when Powell brought her to the emergency room.

Powell said the child, who is the daughter of one of her nieces, was happy and had not been sick.

“She was full of life,” she said.

Sheriff’s investigators in a search warrant said a witness told them the child had been kept in her car seat for 12 hours with little food. Her internal body temperature was 84 degrees at the hospital – nearly 15 degrees below normal.

The N.C. State Bureau of Investigation searched the offices of the county Social Services Department on Tuesday though officials will not say the search was related to Aubrey’s death.

 

Warrant: Swain County Department of Social Services faked records after girl’s death

http://www.citizen-times.com/article/20110224/NEWS/302240025/Warrant-Swain-County-Department-Social-Services-faked-records-after-girl-s-death

9:43 PM, Feb. 23, 2011

Written by Jon Ostendorff

BRYSON CITY — A Swain County social worker visited the home of a 15-month-old girl five months before she died but found no evidence of abuse despite a complaint the girl had fallen from an unbuckled car seat down a set of stairs.

Social worker Craig Smith later falsified his records after Aubrey Littlejohn died to show he had called the hospital to make sure she was examined for injuries from the fall, investigators said in a search warrant filed on Wednesday.

Witnesses claim DSS received numerous reports detailing abuse of the child but failed to take action, investigators said in the search warrant. The reports included allegations that the child had no food and that the home had no heat.

Investigators believe the toddler died in the middle of the night after being strapped into a car seat for 12 hours the previous day. She was given little to eat or drink, according to court papers. The child’s family on Wednesday disputed those allegations.

N.C. State Bureau of Investigation agents on Tuesday searched the county’s Department of Social Services office as part of an investigation into the child’s death. They seized records, computer hard drives and mobile phones.

Smith did not immediately return a message left at his office on Wednesday.

Justin Greene, the department’s attorney, said DSS is cooperating with authorities.

“We are taking the allegations very seriously,” he said.

He would not specifically discuss the allegations in the SBI search warrant though he did say the matter was being handled with an internal investigation.

Family denies abuse

No one had been charged in connection with the case on Wednesday.

An autopsy that will provide the cause of the child’s death is not yet complete.

The toddler died Jan. 10 at the Cherokee Indian Hospital about 15 minutes after being brought in by her great-aunt.

A man who lived in the home told Sheriff’s Office Detective Carolyn Posey the child was left in a car seat for 12 hours the day before, and given only few bites of a hot dog and sips of soda.

(Page 2 of 4)
 
She was wrapped in a blanket and wearing only a diaper soaked in urine and feces and a T-shirt when she arrived at the hospital, according to an investigator’s statement in a search warrant.

The child was limp and cold to the touch, according to the court papers. Her temperature was 84 degrees, nearly 15 degrees below normal.

Lady Bird Powell, the child’s great-aunt, told the Citizen-Times on Wednesday that she doesn’t know what caused Aubrey Littlejohn’s death.

Powell had been caring for the child. Aubrey’s mother, Jasmine Littlejohn, was in jail at the time and remains there.

Powell’s home in Swain County had heat, and the child was well-cared for, she said.

She fed Aubrey breakfast and lunch that day and the child was out of her car seat playing while Powell and her husband cleaned a house they were moving to in Bryson City.

Powell said the child was happy and had not been sick though she could not yet walk.

She said she doesn’t know why the child died.

Powell said she changed Aubrey’s diaper and put her to bed under a blanket that night. She fell asleep on the sofa while watching a movie with her husband.

When she got up, she said she checked on Aubrey and the toddler was cold and wasn’t breathing.

She grabbed the child and wrapped her in the blanket and ran out of the house to the car and started heading toward the hospital. She called 911 on the way and a dispatcher told her how to perform CPR.

Doctors in the emergency room tried to revive Aubrey. She died just before 4 a.m.

A preliminary autopsy at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center found the child had a fractured left arm, according to a warrant investigators later filed to search Powell’s home.

Powell said the child did fall from her car seat down the front steps because the handle on the seat wasn’t locked when Powell picked it up. Aubrey, Powell said, suffered only a bruise to her face.

Caregiver’s past

Powell said Aubrey’s mother pleaded with her to take the child with the only condition being she would not have to pay child support. Littlejohn is in jail on a drug charge.

(Page 3 of 4)
 
Powell, 38, said she agreed but made Jasmine Littlejohn sign over legal custody of the baby.

Powell said DSS visits her house at least twice a year though she said the agency had never substantiated a case of abuse or neglect before Aubrey died.

Powell’s criminal record includes a conviction for assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill for stabbing a woman with a knife in a fight when she was 18, she said. The woman, she said, hit her in the head with a tire iron while they were drunk.

Powell in 2007 was ticketed for allowing a 14-year-old to drive on U.S. 19 with a 5- and 9-year-old in the car, according to records at the county courthouse. The teenager wrecked the car.

Powell later punched the child, according to court papers.

The traffic charge was dismissed after Powell agreed to plead guilty to assault for hitting the teenager.

Powell said her criminal charges aren’t secret in the small communities of Swain County and the Cherokee Indian Reservation.

But, she said, she tried to care for Aubrey.

DSS conspiracy alleged

Posey, the sheriff’s detective, arrived at the hospital in Cherokee shortly after Aubrey died to start an investigation.

She learned that DSS had at least two reports of abuse and neglect involving the child and requested the documents that week. About two weeks later she met with DSS officials to formally request the records, according to the SBI search warrant.

Two weeks passed before she got some of the records.

But the documents Posey got were incomplete, according to court papers. Some documents were missing and forms with sequential page numbers were incomplete.

She found a report dated Sept. 24 that showed Smith, the social worker who checked on abuse allegations at the Powell home, had called the Cherokee Indian Hospital to speak with the doctor who examined Aubrey after her fall down the steps.

Smith, in his report, said the doctor told him the child was healthy and did not appear injured.

Posey requested all the records on Aubrey from the hospital and found no documentation that the doctor had seen the child.

(Page 4 of 4)
 
The only record the hospital had on the child was the day she died, according to court papers.

Posey and a private investigator working for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians interviewed Smith last week.

He told them he got the complaint about the child falling down on Sept. 15. He told investigators he went to the home the next day.

He found the mobile home clean. He said Powell was feeding Aubrey and that the home was stocked with food and had running water.

Smith told Powell to have the child examined because of the complaint about the fall. Then he left.

Smith then told investigators in the interview that he called the hospital on Sept. 24 to verify that Aubrey had been examined.

After hearing that the child was fine, he closed the case on Oct. 10 and sent Powell a letter saying the abuse claim was unsubstantiated.

Posey told him that she knew he was lying about the call to the hospital.

Smith then told the investigators that he was instructed to falsify the records by his supervisor after Aubrey died to show that he followed up with a call to the hospital.

He said he was later called to a meeting with his supervisor, Candice Lassiter, other agency officials and DSS Director Tammy Cagle.

They questioned him about his investigation at the Powell home. Cagle, according to the court papers, told Smith “we have to get everything in order and everything straight.”

She wanted to know why he didn’t follow up to make sure the child had been seen by a doctor.

DSS officials mentioned in the court papers did not respond to a message left at the department on Wednesday or a message sent through the department’s attorney.

 

Swain County DSS under investigation for possible neglect in death of a 15-month-old

http://www.maconnews.com/news/416-swain-county-dss-under-investigation-for-possible-neglect-in-death-of-a-15-month-old

Thursday, 24 February 2011
Written by Mike Kesselring – Contributing Writer

The Swain County Department of Social Services was locked down early Tuesday morning by the State Bureau of Investigation.

The Swain County Department of Social Services building with Bryson City and the Great Smoky Mountains in the background.

According to unnamed sources, the SBI was conducting an investigation because of possible neglect by the Swain County DSS in the Jan. 10 death of 16-month-old Aubrey Littlejohn, of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The child allegedly died while in the care of a relative when the infant’s mother, Jasmine Littlejohn, was in jail following unrelated drug charges. Because the child lived in the county, and not on Indian land, her case came under the watch of the Swain County DSS.

No member of the family or DSS worker has yet been charged with any crimes.

The Swain County Sheriff’s Department was on hand during the investigation, said Sheriff Curtis Cochran, in a supporting role to the SBI and to provide security on the DSS property. As part of that security, a sheriff’s deputy was placed on the grounds to monitor movement in and out of the building. Members of the press were not allowed on the grounds during the lockdown period at the direction of the SBI.

DSS clients were allowed in and out of the building but only to have their appointments rescheduled. Most employees were free to enter and exit the building to conduct normal business or for lunch breaks, while others were being interviewed by the SBI.

Serious allegations have been leveled against Swain County’s DSS from several quarters. Some of the most severe criticism has come from a member of the legal profession.

“Anyone in the state legislature who wants to cut funding from Social Services and the Guardian Ad Litem program is a baby killer,” says Jasmine Littlejohn’s lawyer David Wijewickrama of Waynesvlle. “There is a systemic problem in the state of North Carolina with the Department of Social Services and the Guardian ad Litem programs. The state is trying to cut the funding. DSS workers are under trained, under paid and overworked.”

Wijewickrama said that across the state, numerous cases of unnecessary deaths are due to the department’s failure to act, and that the department should be double or triple funded, especially because the people who need these services suffer the most in this time of economic downturn. He says that even though there are laws on the books that allow Social Services and law enforcement to address certain situations, the man power is just not there.

Swain County Sheriff’s Deputy Matthew Hague checks the comings and goings of employees and clients to the DSS offices during lockdown Tuesday morning.

“Congressman Shuler is very concerned about this. He is appalled. He is livid.” He said. “We have a legislature that is in a cutting mode, not in a doubling or tripling of the fundamental funding mode.”

Wijewickrama is concerned that social workers, who have to have a college degree, start out underpaid, most of who are very young with little or no training to handle tough situations in society involving domestic violence, drugs, substance abuse, and alcohol.

“I have gone to an extraordinary level to make sure I do not interfere with, contaminate or in anyway compromise the criminal investigation,” said Wijewickrama.

EBCI officials are also concerned about the welfare of its tribal members and have hired a private investigator to provide the tribe “with a more comprehensive level of information in this case,” according to Chief Michel Hicks.

When contacted Wednesday for a statement, District Attorney Mike Bonfoey said “All I can tell you is that an investigation is being conducted by law enforcement. When their investigation is complete the District Attorney’s office will make a statement.”

Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran had no comments on the investigation and the SBI has not released any information as of presstime.

 

 

 

Cherokee Girl’s Death being investigated, Swain DSS accused of Cover-Up

http://theonefeather.com/2011/02/cherokee-girl%E2%80%99s-death-being-investigated-swain-dss-accused-of-cover-up/

February 25, 2011

By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.

ONE FEATHER STAFF

                Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn, a 15-month-old EBCI tribal member, was pronounced dead at Cherokee Indian Hospital at 3:56am on the morning of Jan. 10.  Aubrey was allegedly left in a car seat for 12 hours and given bites of a hot dog and a small amount of soda prior to her death. 

               The events leading up to her tragic death are under investigation along with the Swain County Department of Social Services (DSS) who is accused of a cover-up and falsifying documents including a doctor’s visit that never occurred. 

                Swain County DSS offices were raided on the morning of Tuesday, Feb. 22 and computers and records were seized. 

                As of press time no charges have been filed in the case.  District Attorney Mike Bonfoey related, “There is an investigation ongoing with law enforcement at this time and the investigation continues.”            

                The child’s caregivers, LadyBird (Powell) Murphy and her husband James, brought Aubrey to the hospital along with two others on that night.  LadyBird Murphy, Aubrey’s great-aunt, was caring for the little girl while her mother, Jasmine Littlejohn, is in jail on unrelated drug charges.

                  Although Aubrey was an EBCI tribal member, the caregivers lived in Bryson City and were in the jurisdiction of Swain County DSS. 

                Principal Chief Michell Hicks commented, “Our tribe made a decision to hire a private investigator to provide us with a more comprehensive level of information in this case. We are unable to comment further about this ongoing investigation but we remain committed to following through to ensure justice is served in this case.”

                According to court papers filed in Swain County Court, the Swain County Sheriff’s Office was notified of the death and Detective Carolyn Posey was at the hospital 30 minutes later to start an investigation.  Posey then contacted the Swain County DSS and “discovered Swain County Department of Social Services had had at least two reports of neglect and/or abuse regarding Aubrey.” 

                The court papers state that Detective Posey requested those reports and received some two weeks later, but she found some of those to be questionable in nature.    

Court papers revealed, “An examination of the documentation provided to Detective Posey by the Department revealed that the documentation was incomplete:  documents were missing and forms with sequential page numbers were not complete.” 

                Some of the reports may have been falsified altogether. 

                Swain County DSS Social Worker Craig Smith documented that he placed a phone call on Sept. 24, 2010 to Cherokee Indian Hospital and spoke with a doctor regarding a visit following a fall by Aubrey. 

                According to the court papers, Detective Posey and Daniel Cheatham, the private investigator hired by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to aid in the investigation, formally interviewed the doctor in Smith’s report who told them that she had never had a phone conversation with Smith and had never seen nor examined Aubrey Littlejohn.

                The court papers state that the investigators approached Smith with evidence of the “non-existent telephone” call and he admitted to making it up. 

                Smith also related that “he had documented that false conversation because he was instructed to do so by his supervisor Social Worker Supervisor Candice Lassiter” who allegedly gave Smith a handwritten note on what to include in the narrative.

                Following a report to Swain County DSS on Sept, 15, 2010 of a fall by Aubrey, Smith reportedly made a home visit.  He initially told investigators the house was clean, full of nourishing food and “smelled of Pine Sol cleaning solution.” 

                Court papers allege that Posey and Cheatham “have interviewed numerous persons who indicated that they witnessed physical abuse and neglect inflicted on the child and observed no food, a lack of heat and other inadequacies in the home environment.” 

                A message seeking comment from Tammy Cagle, Swain County DSS director, was not returned by press time. 

SBI warrant page 1

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Swain leaders call for social workers to step down

http://www.citizen-times.com/article/20110301/NEWS01/110301024/Swain-leaders-call-social-workers-step-down

Mar. 1, 2011

Written by Jon Ostendorff

BRYSON CITY — Swain County leaders want social workers named in inquiry into the death of a child in their care to step down during the police investigation.

“Something has to be done about this,” said Commissioner Donnie Dixon on Tuesday. “This is not a dirty rag that you just throw aside. Something is wrong and we need to get something done about it.”

Commissioners at their meeting on Monday said they would ask the county Department of Social Services board to suspend four DSS workers with pay pending the outcome of the investigation.

One social worker named in the investigation has already been suspended with pay, the department said Tuesday.

Agents with the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation on Feb. 22 seized records and computer hard drives from the DSS office in Bryson City as part of a probe into the death of 15-month-old Aubrey Littlejohn.

She died Jan. 10 at the Cherokee Indian Hospital after spending the previous day strapped into her car seat for 12 hours with nothing to eat other than a few bites of a hotdog and sips of a soda, according to an SBI search warrant.

The woman caring for her, Lady Bird Powell, has disputed that claim. She said the child was fed and out of her car seat while she and her husband cleaned a house that day. Aubrey is her great niece. The child’s mother is in jail on drug charges.

Powell said she does not know why Aubrey died. She discovered the toddler wasn’t breathing around 3 a.m. that night and took her to the hospital. She called 911 on the way and tried to perform CPR.

Social worker Craig Smith visited Powell’s house five months before Aubrey died to investigate a complaint that she had fallen down a set of stairs. He found no evidence of abuse but asked Powell to have the child examined at the hospital, according to police records.

Investigators in court papers said Smith falsified his records after her death to show that he had called the hospital to make sure the child was seen by a doctor. The child, according to court papers, was never examined.

(Page 2 of 2)

Smith told investigators he was instructed to falsify his records by his supervisor, according to court papers.

Aubrey had a broken arm that had healed at the time of her death, investigators said in a search warrant.

No one has been charged in the case, Sheriff Curtis Cochran said Tuesday.

Swain County commissioners appoint two members of the DSS board. The governor appoints two and the board elects a fifth member, said Commissioner David Monteith.

He said commissioners plan to meet with the DSS board this week to ask for six DSS staffers, including Director Tammy Cagle, be placed on paid leave.

Monteith said the state would send someone to run the agency. He said the move is necessary for the agency to continue serving the public.

“The main purpose is public confidence in the DSS system,” he said.

Monteith during the Monday night meeting asked DSS board members to confirm that Smith had already been placed on leave. They would not discuss the matter, he said.

Records from the county’s human resources office on Monday showed Smith was hired in 2006 as a trainee and promoted to social worker last year making $35,488 a year.

Smith on Feb. 24 was placed on paid investigatory suspension, according to DSS records.

Smith, Cagle and others have not return messages left at their office and given to the agency’s attorney.

Cagle did not immediately respond to a message on Tuesday.

Justin Greene, the agency’s attorney, declined to comment on Cagle’s reaction of the request that she be suspended.

 

The tragic life of Aubrey Littlejohn: Family members feared for child’s safety

http://www.smokymountainnews.com/news/item/3346-the-tragic-life-of-aubrey-littlejohn-family-members-feared-for-child%E2%80%99s-safety

Wednesday, 02 March 2011 15:23

Written by Becky Johnson 

Relatives say they warned social workers repeatedly over the course of several months that Aubrey Littlejohn was being neglected and abused.

Called by her middle name by family, 15-month-old Kina-Marie died on a mattress on the floor of a singlewide trailer sometime in the middle of the night on Jan. 10. She was dressed in only a T-shirt despite statements made to law enforcement that the trailer had no heat. It is unclear whether an adult was home.

Social workers in Swain County had been warned by relatives that Kina Marie was in danger but failed to remove her from the home, according to law enforcement records.

Witnesses interviewed have stated that they called the Department of Social Services and made reports detailing abuse and neglect of the child and received no response from any departmental employee,” according to a search warrant executed against DSS offices.

Relatives told investigators “they had witnessed physical abuse and neglect inflicted on the child and observed no food, a lack of heat and other inadequacies in the home environment.

The baby had been in the care of a great-aunt, Lady Bird Powell, 38, since last spring. Powell did not have legal custody, however. Other relatives asked Powell for the child, and even the child’s mother tried to get her back, but Powell refused to give her up.

So relatives turned to DSS for help. At least three relatives asked DSS to take the baby away from Powell, and had been to Swain DSS in person.

Kina Marie’s mother, Jasmine Littlejohn, 20, had to part with her daughter last April after being sentenced to a mandatory 90-day drug rehab. Meanwhile, Powell’s 18-year-old son, Hawk Rattler, had died of a drug overdose in March, according to a death certificate. Powell offered to keep Kina Marie while Littlejohn was away in rehab, claiming it would help her cope with her own son’s death, according to relatives.

Kina Marie was six months old when her mother turned her over to Powell. When Littlejohn got out of rehab, Powell refused to give Kina Marie back, relatives said.

Littlejohn was soon back behind bars, however, on federal drug charges for conspiracy to distribute marijuana and is being held as a federal prisoner in the Cherokee County jail.

Whether Powell was getting aid for Kina Marie, such as food stamps or monetary support, is not certain. SBI agents have requested all records of financial support or benefits Powell was getting for Kina Marie from DSS. Relatives say Powell was getting Kina Marie’s food stamps, but that information is not public.

 No place for a child

In perhaps one of the most perplexing elements of the case, Powell’s own children were taken away by DSS but Kina Marie was left behind. According to relatives, two of Powell’s own children were removed from her home in August while Kina Marie, who was just a baby, stayed in her care. In November, a nephew living with Powell was also removed from the home, but once again Kina Marie was left there, according to relatives.

DSS records regarding the children and their removal from the home aren’t public.

Dispatch records show that Swain County deputies were asked to escort a social worker to Powell’s home on Nov. 8, but no one came to the door. They went back the following day and were at the home for over an hour, according to dispatch logs.

Relatives said they were concerned that Kina Marie wasn’t growing well and was too small for her age, relatives said. She couldn’t do the things she should have been able to. Relatives suspect she wasn’t being fed properly. She also spent long hours many days strapped into a car seat — whether in the car or inside the house — so she couldn’t move or crawl around, according to relatives and law enforcement documents.

DSS records of one complaint reads as follows: “Reporter states she is very concerned for the baby. Reporter states that the baby is one year old and seems significantly delayed. Reporter states she is always in a car seat and is left in the car alone, even in the heat, while they run errands and drive around all day.”

But there were even more troubling signs. Kina Marie was seen with bruises on her face one day in September. When relatives called DSS to once again report their suspicions of abuse, it finally triggered a home visit by a social worker named Craig Smith.

Powell told Smith that Kina-Marie fell down a set of five stairs. Powell gave Smith two different stories, however, according to his report on the incident.

Powell first said the Kina Marie was sitting in a car seat at the top of the steps. She wasn’t buckled in and fell out when Powell jerked up the car seat. But Powell also said Kina Marie was kicking around in the car seat and made it fall over.

“Ladybird did not take the baby to the doctor because she stated she did not want DSS to be involved,” Smith’s report on the incident says. Smith then told Powell to take her to the doctor. But Powell never did, and Smith never followed up to see whether she had.

Cherokee Indian Hospital has no records of Kina Marie ever being seen by a doctor there, according to law enforcement documents. Cherokee Indian Hospital is where most members of the tribe go for medical care. Whether she was taken to a doctor elsewhere for regular check-ups and vaccinations is not known.

At some point, Kina Marie’s arm was broken. Medical examiners performing an autopsy after her death discovered it, according to a search warrant. The autopsy report is not yet complete.

Following Kina Marie’s death, investigators searched Powell’s trailer and found evidence of drug use. Drug paraphernalia, including pipes, pill grinders, straws and empty bottles were confiscated in the search, along with several items covered in a white powdery residue.

During attempts to revive Kina Marie at the emergency room the night she died, doctors gave her medication to counter possible narcotic exposure based on “previous DSS reports concerning the child’s living conditions,” according to law enforcement records.

According to Veronica Callahan, Powell’s next-door neighbor, there were often lots of vehicles coming and going from the trailer at all hours of the night.

Callahan also said unsupervised children were often running around in the yard and street in front of the trailer. In the fall, she noticed children were sleeping in a tent in the backyard of the trailer. She said Powell would sometimes lock the children out of the trailer.

Sheriff deputies had been to Powell’s trailer on three calls in a six-month period, according to dispatch records. One was for a report of domestic violence in June. In October, deputies responded to reports of a drunk person causing a disturbance. In November, the Swain County sheriff’s office were called to the residence after a report that three boys were missing. The boys were later found under a nearby bridge.

Powell’s criminal record includes misdemeanor child abuse for allowing 5-year-old and 9-year-old child to ride in a car with a 14-year-old behind the wheel. The 14-year-old wrecked, and Powell was charged for endangering their safety. She also has assault charges.

 The final hours

The day Kina Marie died, she had been left strapped in a car seat for 12 hours, according to a law enforcement investigation.

“During that time period Aubrey was not removed from the car seat, given food or a drink except for some bites from a hotdog and sips of a soda that Ladybird Powell was eating around 5 p.m. Aubrey’s diaper was not changed during this period,” investigators were told by a witness who was with Kina Marie and Ladybird that day.

Around 10 p.m. she was taken from the car seat and put to bed on a mattress wearing only a T-shirt and diaper.

Powell discovered Kina Marie’s body around 3 a.m., according to dispatch records. The Cherokee Police Department was put on alert that a white truck with its flashers on was speeding toward the Cherokee hospital with a baby who was blue and not breathing. Meanwhile, the dispatcher gave Powell instructions on how to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation while driving in the truck.

Powell was distraught by Kina Marie’s death, according to a recording of the 911 call Powell made after discovering Kina Marie’s body. Powell was hysterical, screaming and weeping as she held Kina Marie in her arms.

“My baby’s not breathing, oh my God, she’s not breathing,” Powell cried over and over into the phone. Powell stayed on the line with the 911 dispatcher while her husband, James Murphy, drove them to the emergency room at Cherokee Indian Hospital.

They arrived at the emergency room by 3:30 a.m., where medical staff had to forcibly pry Kina Marie out of Powell’s arms.

Kina Marie’s body was a dusky blue color, and her core body temperature was only 84 degrees.

“Infant was limp and very cold to the touch,” according to law enforcement records.

Doctors attempted to revive Kina Marie but were unsuccessful. She was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at the hospital.

Cherokee police officers felt the mysterious death should be investigated, but since Powell lived off the reservation the case would fall to the Swain County Sheriff’s office. Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran and Detective Carolyn Posey were roused from bed and arrived at the hospital in Cherokee around 5 a.m.

An investigation by the Swain County sheriff’s office into Kina Marie’s death is still pending, which will determine what if any charges are pressed against the baby’s caregivers.

Waynesville Attorney David Wijewickrama has been retained by Kina Marie’s mother to pursue a civil case against DSS for failure to intervene.

“I am absolutely disgusted and appalled with any social worker that would have left her alone in that trailer with the people who abused her and eventually killed her,” Wijewickrama said.

Wijewickrama said DSS should have heeded complaints of relatives and removed Kina Marie from Powell’s care.

“If a social worker wants to take a child they can take it just like that,” Wijewickrama said. “The statute is so broadly written it gives enormous power to law enforcement and DSS workers to do whatever they want, if they even think they need do. They have authority right then and there. Get the kid in the car, and go.”

Wijewickrama expressed “rage and fury” over the alleged DSS cover-up aimed at erasing evidence they knew of the abuse and failed to act.

“I’m mad. I’m very mad,” Wijewickrama said.

Wijewickrama said criminal charges in Kina Marie’s death should have been pressed by now.

“I am absolutely stunned that based on the contents of those warrants that no one has been arrested,” Wijewickrama said.

Staff writer Quintin Ellison contributed to this report.

 

Swain DSS investigated for cover-up in child’s death

http://www.smokymountainnews.com/news/item/3323-swain-dss-investigated-for-cover-up-in-child%E2%80%99s-death

Wednesday, 02 March 2011

Written by Becky Johnson

The Swain County Department of Social Services 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 specific charge being investigated is “obstruction of justice being infamous, done in secrecy and malice, and/or with deceit and intent to defraud.”

The social worker who handled the child’s case, Craig Smith, altered his reports, fabricating a hospital visit and doctor’s exam that never occurred, according to law enforcement statements. Smith claims he did so at the direction of his immediate superior, Candace Lassiter, according to a search warrant executed by the SBI at the DSS office in Bryson City.

The search warrant also suggests that the agency concealed records in its possession rather than turning them over to investigators.

DSS Director Tammy Cagle and Program Manager T.L. Jones met with Smith after he had falsified the reports but before they had been turned over to investigators, according to the warrant. Smith said Cagle told him at the meeting “we have to get everything in order and everything straight.”

The SBI seized computers and records from Swain County DSS offices last Tuesday (Feb. 22). Workers were put on lock down during the raid. People with appointments to see social workers or apply for benefits had to come back another day.

The Swain County Sheriff’s Office unraveled the alleged DSS cover-up while investigating the Jan. 10 death of Aubrey Kina Marie Littlejohn. Kina Marie was living with a great aunt, Lady Bird Powell, at the time.

Abuse and neglect are considered contributing factors, according to law enforcement records, but the investigation is still pending and no charges have been filed yet. The autopsy report is not yet final.

The investigation into Swain DSS was launched after Swain County Detective Carolyn Posey uncovered discrepancies in DSS records and found holes in the accounts from DSS social workers. Posey had initially been assigned to investigate Aubrey’s death and determine what, if any, charges should be filed.

Over the course of the investigation, Posey encountered delays getting DSS records. When she finally got the reports she found there were missing pages and other things that didn’t add up.

The child and caregiver are members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, but lived in Swain County. The tribe hired a private investigator, Danny Cheatham, to assist Posey in the case.

Posey and Cheatham interviewed several relatives and neighbors who told them they witnessed abuse and neglect of Aubrey while in Powell’s care. Relatives said they had repeatedly informed DSS of the situation, made reports and requested intervention but got no response.

But numerous DSS employees — from the rank and file to the director and manager — told Posey a different story, according to the search warrant.

“Investigators Posey and Cheetham have interviewed numerous persons who indicated that they witnessed physical abuse and neglect inflicted on the child and observed no food, a lack of heat and other inadequacies in the home environment. This information is in direct contrast to the information provided by the Department of Social Services’ employees: Misty Tabor, Craig Smith, Candace Lassiter, Angela Biggs, T.L. Jones and Tammy Cagle,” the warrant states.

Cagle is the director of DSS and Jones is the program manager.

Cagle and Jones told Posey they had turned over all their reports and files on Aubrey. But Posey believed the agency was withholding records and reports, according to the search warrant.

Once Posey and Cheatham discovered what appeared to be cover-up by Swain DSS, they alerted District Attorney Mike Bonfoey, who in turn called the State Bureau of Investigation.

Unraveling tale

Posey encountered significant and unexplained delays getting the DSS records for Aubrey. Posey began asking for the records immediately following the child’s death, but three weeks later had still not received them.

Posey then went to DSS and met with Program Manager T.L. Jones and DSS Director Tammy Cagle to find out what the hold up was.

But even then another two weeks passed before she got the records — a delay of five weeks after her initial request. By now, Posey had grown suspicious. That suspicion mounted as Posey realized the records were incomplete.

“Documents were missing and forms with sequential page numbers were not complete,” the search warrant states.

But it was a dubious account of a doctor’s checkup that proved the biggest red flag to Posey.

Powell was supposed to have Aubrey examined by a doctor following a complaint from relatives who saw the baby with bruises. When visited by social worker Craig Smith, Powell told him the bruises were the result of a fall down the stairs.

Smith told Powell to take the baby to the doctor for a checkup, but she never did. Smith failed to follow up with Powell on the outcome of the doctor’s visit.

Following Aubrey’s death, Smith claims his supervisor told him to go back and “fudge” the reports, according to the search warrant. Smith wrote a fake report recounting a conversation with a doctor who had done a checkup.

Here’s what the fabricated report said about that conversation:

“Smith asked (Dr. Toedt) how the visit went and she stated that she checked the child and didn’t find anything wrong with the child and stated the child appeared to be normal to her. Smith asked her if she could send him something stating what she had just told him. Dr. Toadt stated that wouldn’t be a problem and that she would type something up for him and fax it to him.”

Posey found the account troubling. For starters, Smith spelled the doctor’s name wrong throughout the report.

But as a licensed nurse herself, Posey knew that federal law prohibits doctors from giving out personal health information about patients over the phone. So she decided to call the doctor herself.

“Detective Posey found that there was no medical record documenting that Dr. Toedt had ever seen Aubrey Littlejohn,” the search warrant states. “Dr. Toedt told Detective Posey that she had never had a phone conversation with Craig Smith, and she had never seen or examined Aubrey Littlejohn.”

The very next day, Thursday, Feb. 17, Posey and Cheetham went to see Smith. When they asked him about his visit to Powell’s trailer, he told them the house was clean, that the floors had been mopped and even “smelled of Pine Sol cleaning solution.” He said Powell was feeding Aubrey crackers and juice, and that the home was “stocked with food.”

Smith told the investigators that reports of abuse were “unsubstantiated” and the case had been closed on Oct. 10.

When asked about the doctor’s visit, Smith repeated his story from the fake report. Posey and Cheatham then confronted Smith with what they knew, and Smith fessed up.

Smith admitted to fabricating the doctor’s visit and altering reports in the case file, but said that he did so at the direction of his immediate supervisor, Candice Lassiter. Smith said Lassiter came to him the week after Aubrey’s death and told him to change the records, including faking a doctor’s visit, according to the search warrant.

Smith also said he met with DSS Director Tammy Cagle and Program Manager T.L. Jones during the course of the law enforcement investigation.

“Cagle told Smith that we have to get everything in order and everything straight,” the search warrant says. “This was after Smith had altered and falsified his original narrative and after he had submitted the altered and falsified narrative to Lassiter.”

In the meeting, Cagle asked Smith why he hadn’t followed up on the doctor’s visit, according to Smith. Smith said he was then told to leave the meeting and his bosses stayed in the room.

By now, it was early February. Posey still hadn’t received the records from DSS.

Meanwhile, Cagle told Smith and Lassiter to go out and find Powell so they could question her about whether she ever took Aubrey to the doctor, according to the search warrant. Smith and Lassiter went to Powell’s trailer and to her sister’s house but had no luck. They came back and told Cagle they couldn’t find Powell, according to Smith’s statement in the warrant.

The following Monday, the SBI secured a search warrant from Superior Court Judge Brad Letts. Agents showed up at DSS shortly after the start of the workday the next morning.

Computer forensics

The search warrant gave SBI agents sweeping authority to seize computers, hard drives, servers and data storage devices, including thumb drives and memory sticks in the personal possession of employees. The search warrant also stipulates that DSS workers turn over passwords required to open files or get into e-mail accounts.

Documents to be seized included case files, call logs, child services reports, time sheets, mileage records and even desktop calendars of employees.

In the search warrant, SBI Agent S. Ashe explained why computers had to be seized rather than inspected on site.

“Searching electronic or computer devices for criminal evidence can be a highly technical process requiring expert skill and a properly controlled environment,” Ashe wrote.

Even if DSS employees deleted incriminating files, it might be possible to recover them.

“Files, or at least traces of that file, can be recovered by forensic analysis techniques even after the file has been deleted by the user,” Ashe wrote.

Computer experts can recover “hidden, erased, compressed and encrypted files,” Ashe wrote, but sifting through the massive quantity of data on computers to find what investigators are looking for is a lengthy process.

 

Child’s death hits Cherokee hard

http://www.smokymountainnews.com/news/item/3345-child%E2%80%99s-death-hits-cherokee-hard

Wednesday, 02 March 2011 15:21

Written by Colby Dunn

The mood is grim. Few people in this tight community want to talk to an outsider about the death of 15-month-old Aubrey Littlejohn.

Here on the Cherokee Indian Reservation, kinship ties are strong and families are extended and extensive. It doesn’t matter that they might not have known or ever even seen the toddler: in this tribe of just more than 14,000 members, there is outrage. Anger. Hurt. Aubrey was one of their own, another branch of the close-knit tribal family tree.

“It’s just uncalled for,” said Lisa Owen, who works in a Cherokee Harley Davidson store. “As a parent myself, I think the well-being of the kids should be first and foremost on anyone’s mind. They’re our future, and if we don’t take care of them, nobody will.”

The Swain County Department of Social Services failed to remove the child from the home despite numerous complaints by caregivers that she was in an unsafe home and being neglected by her caregiver. (see related story)

The allegations have spawned outrage among members of the tribe.

“DSS should’ve stepped in and took care of that baby,” said Scotty Gunter, a clerk at a local auto parts store. “She would probably still be alive if they had.”

His coworker Willene Gross agreed.

“I feel like that baby’s death could’ve been prevented,” said Gross. “They [DSS] need to do more investigating into stuff like that.”

Swain County DSS Director Tammy Cagle said she and her staff are deeply saddened by Aubrey’s death.

Regina Rosario, the head of the Cherokee child-advocacy group Heart-to-Heart, said that she’s dismayed, but not entirely surprised.

“I knew one day it would come down to this, you know, one of ours dying, and you see now that it’s a mess,” said Rosario of the DSS system. “It’s gotten a little better but there’s still things that I think that they should be on top of.”

Tribal Council Member Terri Howard also expressed her sadness over the baby’s death, saying that she hoped social services and tribal government both would use this as an opportunity to reexamine their roles and responsibilities, and possibly make some changes.

“I am very saddened that this little girl lost her life,” said Howard. “It’s a tragedy that it had to come to this.”

As the investigation into Aubrey’s death and the alleged coverup at Swain County DSS continues, more discussions about how the system could be improved are likely to be stirred on the reservation and in surrounding counties. Although the issue has not formally been placed on this agenda for a tribal council meeting this Thursday, Rosario has pledged to bring up the issue in public comment, and Howard believes that others will be there to voice their outrage, too.

 

Swain Co. DSS: Workers Not Suspended During Investigation

http://www2.wspa.com/news/2011/mar/04/2/swain-co-dss-workers-suspended-pending-investigati-ar-1538004/

By: staff | News Channel 7
Published: March 04, 2011
Updated: March 09, 2011

The Swain County Department of Social Service, after the board of directors was unable to reach consensus, decided not to suspend six DSS workers under investigation.

The six workers are under investigation after the death of 16-month-old Aubry Littlejohn.

Deputies with the Swain County Sheriff’s Office and members of the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation are investigating the child’s death, they are looking to see if DSS didn’t properly look into complaints.

The SBI and deputies are also checking to see if the workers tried to cover up facts in the case.

Swain County Commissioners went to the Swain County Department of Social Services board and requested the board suspend the six workers under investigation earlier in March.

Swain County Commissioner Donnie Dixon says he is not happy about the latest development.  The commission recommended the board suspend the employees with pay until the investigation is through.

No charges have been filed against the workers or Ladybird Powell, the woman taking care of the infant.

 

 

Swain leaders call for DSS board’s ouster

http://www.citizen-times.com/article/20110309/NEWS01/110309023/Swain-leaders-call-DSS-board-s-ouster

1:03 PM, Mar. 9, 2011

Written by Jon Ostendorff

BRYSON CITY — Swain County commissioners on Wednesday called for social services board members to resign after they failed to suspend four workers named in an investigation into the death of a toddler.

The Department of Social Services board met for nearly three hours in closed session Tuesday night but failed to reach a consensus on suspending the workers with pay.

DSS Director Tammy Cagle was among those under consideration for suspension.

Police have named the workers in part of an investigation into the death of 15-month-old Aubrey Littlejohn.

The child died Jan. 10 after spending the previous day strapped into a car seat for 12 hours and given only bites of a hot dog and sips of a soda, according to a search warrant filed by the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation.

Her great aunt, Lady Bird Powell, discovered she wasn’t breathing that night and took her to the Cherokee Indian Hospital. Powell called 911 along the way and tried to perform CPR, according to court papers.

She has denied the allegation that Aubrey was left strapped in her car seat and wasn’t properly fed. She said in an interview with the newspaper that Aubrey was well cared-for. Aubrey’s mother, Jasmine Littlejohn, gave her daughter to Powell when she was only months old because she could not care for her.

Littlejohn was in jail awaiting sentencing in a federal drug case at the time of the child’s death. She is still in jail. On Tuesday, hours before the DSS board met to consider the suspensions, she called for changes in the social services system to protect other children in her first public comments since her daughter’s death.

The DSS board met after commissioners, who control two seats on the board, requested that they suspend Cagle and three other social workers.

Social worker Craig Smith, who visited Powell’s home five months before Aubrey died, has already been suspended with pay pending the outcome of the investigation. He was at the home acting on a tip that Aubrey fell down a set of stairs from an unbuckled car seat.

 

 

Swain County Commissioners urge DSS Board to resign

http://theonefeather.com/2011/03/swain-county-commissioners-urge-dss-board-to-resign/

March 9, 2011

By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.

ONE FEATHER STAFF 

Swain County DSS offices were raided by the SBI on the morning of Tuesday, Feb. 22 and computers and records were seized.  Those records involved the tragic death of 15-month-old Kina-Marie Littlejohn, an EBCI tribal member who was pronounced dead at Cherokee Indian Hospital at 3:56 am on the morning of Jan. 10.

The events leading up to her death are under investigation along with the Swain County DSS who is accused of a cover-up and and falsifying documents including a doctor’s visit that never occurred.

Now, the Swain County Board of Commissioners is asking for the resignations of the entire Swain DSS Board.

A statement released from the Swain County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday, March 9 stated, “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.”

The statement said the suspensions would help the Department regain community trust.  “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.”

Allegations of a Cover-Up

 Court papers revealed that documents given to Detective Carolyn Posey, Swain County Sheriff’s Office, as she started her investigation of Aubrey’s death, were incomplete and some were missing.

Some of the reports may have been falsified altogether.

Swain County DSS Social Worker Craig Smith documented that he placed a phone call on Sept. 24, 2010 to Cherokee Indian Hospital and spoke with a doctor regarding a visit following a fall by Aubrey.

According to the court papers, Detective Posey and Daniel Cheatham, the private investigator hired by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to aid in the investigation, formally interviewed the doctor in Smith’s report who told them that she had never had a phone conversation with Smith and had never seen nor examined Aubrey Littlejohn.

The court papers state that the investigators approached Smith with evidence of the “non-existent telephone” call and he admitted to making it up.

Smith also related that “he had documented that false conversation because he was instructed to do so by his supervisor Social Worker Supervisor Candice Lassiter” who allegedly gave Smith a handwritten note on what to include in the narrative.

Following a report to Swain County DSS on Sept, 15, 2010 of a fall by Aubrey, Smith reportedly made a home visit.  He initially told investigators the house was clean, full of nourishing food and “smelled of Pine Sol cleaning solution.”

Court papers allege that Posey and Cheatham “have interviewed numerous persons who indicated that they witnessed physical abuse and neglect inflicted on the child and observed no food, a lack of heat and other inadequacies in the home environment.”

A message seeking comment from Tammy Cagle, Swain County DSS director, was not immediately returned.

 

Swain DSS board members step down

http://www.citizen-times.com/article/20110312/NEWS01/303120033/Swain-DSS-board-members-step-down

 Mar. 11, 2011
 

Written by Jon Ostendorff Joel Burgess

BRYSON CITY — Three members of the Swain County social services board resigned amid criticism over failing to agree on whether to suspend four workers named in a death investigation.

Chairman Jim Gribble and board members Robert Thomas and James Treadway stepped down effective Wednesday and Thursday, according to resignation letters made public Friday.

Thomas said he enjoyed serving on the board and appreciated the hard work and dedication from staff at the county Department of Social Services.

“I wish only the best for everyone and that the truth will prevail,” he said in his resignation.

The DSS could not reach a census on suspending with pay four workers, including agency Director Tammy Cagle, after meeting for about three hours in a closed session on Tuesday night.

Police investigating the death of 15-month-old Aubrey Littlejohn are looking into whether a social worker was ordered to falsify documents so it would appear someone had followed up on an abuse complaint.

County commissioners, who control two seats on the five-member board, asked for the suspension to allow an unimpeded investigation.

The remaining two DSS board members are appointed by the state Social Services Commission, and the final member is appointed by the DSS board itself.

Aubrey died Jan. 10 after spending the previous day strapped into a car seat for 12 hours and given only bites of a hot dog and sips of a soda, according to a search warrant filed by the State Bureau of Investigation.

Her great-aunt, Lady Bird Powell, discovered Aubrey wasn’t breathing that night and took her to the Cherokee Indian Hospital. Powell called 911 along the way and tried to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation, according to court papers.

She has denied the allegation that Aubrey was left strapped in her car seat and wasn’t properly fed. She said in an interview that Aubrey was well-cared-for.

Aubrey’s mother, Jasmine Littlejohn, gave her daughter to Powell when she was only months old because she could not care for her.

Littlejohn was in jail awaiting sentencing in a federal drug case at the time of the child’s death. She is still in jail.

Social worker Craig Smith, who visited Powell’s home five months before Aubrey died, has already been suspended with pay pending the outcome of the investigation. He was at the home acting on a tip that Aubrey fell down a set of stairs from an unbuckled car seat.

Smith told police that he falsified records after the child’s death to show he had made sure she was seen by a doctor for injuries from the fall. He told investigators his supervisor instructed him to fix the records.

No one has been charged in Aubrey’s death.

The N.C. Division of Social Services plans to review foster care and child protective services cases in Swain County.

DSS staff, the agency’s board and commissioners have asked for the review.

 

 

Swain County DSS board members resign

http://maconnews.com/news/510-swain-county-dss-board-members-resign

Monday, 14 March 2011
Written by By Mike Kesselring

Three Swain County Department of Social Services board members, Chairman Jim Gribble, Wall Treadway and Bob Thomas, resigned Thursday, March 10 following the Swain County commissioners’ statement on Wednesday that they should resign after not suspending the Director of the DSS during an emergency DSS board meeting Tuesday.
Robert White and Vice-Chairman Frela Beck did not resign.

DSS Fiscal Officer Kim Hight confirmed the resignations stating they had been immediate and explained that copies of letters of resignation aren’t available to the public.

Responding to the resignations, Swain County Commissioner David Monteith said, “Twice we’ve asked the DSS board to have Director Tammy Cagle step down and it has not happened, but they go ahead and resign. Now what’s wrong with that picture? There’s something wrong with that. It doesn’t make sense! It doesn’t add up!”

Following an emergency meeting between the DSS Board and the Commissionersn on Thursday, March 3, Swain County Commissioners officially recommended by a 4 to 1 vote that the Department of Social Services Board suspend four employees with pay during an ongoing SBI investigation into alleged wrongdoing by the DSS.
Swain County Commissioners released a statement on Wednesday condemning the inaction of the Swain County Department of Social Services Board and requesting that the members resign their posts.
The strongly worded statement pits the two county offices against one another following an emergency DSS board meeting Tuesday. DSS board members failed to take action on a recommendation by commissioners to suspend DSS employees being investigated in the January death of 16-month-old Aubrey Littlejohn.
The statement reads as follows:
“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 Chef’s Challenge 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.

In related news, Ladybird Powell and James Murphy— whose care Aubrey Littlejohn was in at the time of her death— were arrested by Cherokee Police Thursday, Mar. 10, for failure to appear in court. According to Traffic Court Clerk and Clerk of Court Assistant Krystal Smith, the pair had failed to appear in Cherokee Tribal Court on Mar. 4 for traffic violations.

Powell had been charged with driving on a revoked license and speeding 60 in a 45 zone. Murphy had been charged with driving on a revoked license. A third party paid $500.00 bond for each of them and were released.

Resignation letters

032011_BOB_THOMAS

032011_JIM_GRIBBLE

032011_resignationletters

Cherokee trust shaken in Swain DSS

http://www.smokymountainnews.com/news/item/3435

Wednesday, 16 March 2011 14:00

Written by Colby Dunn

 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.”

 

Swain DSS workers banned from Cherokee

http://www.citizen-times.com/article/20110322/NEWS/303220023/1005/ENT/Five-Swain-County-DSS-workers-banned-from-Cherokee?odyssey=nav|head

12:11 AM, Mar. 22, 2011 

Written by Jon Ostendorff

CHEROKEE — Five social workers named in the police investigation into the death of toddler Aubrey Littlejohn will no longer work on the Cherokee Indian Reservation.

The attorney general for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in a memo on Friday said the N.C. Division of Social Services approved a request that the social workers be excluded from duties in Cherokee during the investigation.

“Obviously, we don’t have a comfort level until we see that this issue is resolved,” Principal Chief Michell Hicks said Monday.

The memo said social workers not involved in the investigation would be allowed to work on the reservation.

Cherokee doesn’t have its own social services office. State offices in Swain and Jackson counties handle calls on the reservation.

The 15-month-old child died Jan. 10 after spending the previous day strapped into a car seat for 12 hours and given only bites of a hot dog and sips of soda, according to a search warrant filed by the State Bureau of Investigation.

Aubrey was a member of the tribe, though living in Swain County.

Her great-aunt, Lady Bird Powell, discovered she wasn’t breathing that night and took her to the Cherokee Indian Hospital. Powell called 911 along the way and tried to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation, according to court papers.

Powell has denied the allegation that Aubrey was left strapped in her car seat and wasn’t properly fed. She said in an interview that Aubrey was well-cared-for.

Aubrey’s mother, Jasmine Littlejohn, gave her daughter to Powell when the baby was only months old because she could not care for her. Littlejohn was in jail awaiting sentencing in a federal drug case at the time of the child’s death. She is still in jail.

Social worker Craig Smith, who visited Powell’s home five months before Aubrey died, has already been suspended with pay pending the outcome of the investigation. He was at the home acting on a tip that Aubrey fell down a set of stairs from an unbuckled car seat.

Smith told police he falsified records after the child’s death to show he had made sure she was seen by a doctor for injuries from the fall, according to investigator’s statements in court papers. He told investigators his supervisor instructed him to fix the records. A preliminary autopsy found Aubrey had a broken arm that had healed before her death.

 
(Page 2 of 2)

The N.C. Division of Social Services plans to review foster care and child protective services cases in Swain County.

Swain County commissioners on March 10 asked that the local DSS board resign after it failed to reach an agreement on suspending the four other social workers police have named in court papers. Director Tammy Cagle was among those commissioners wanted suspended with pay pending the outcome of the investigation.

Three DSS board members resigned the next day. Commissioners control two of the seats on the five-member board.

The Eastern Band’s request to have the social workers excluded is the most recent in a string of unusual steps surrounding the inquiry into Aubrey’s death.

• The tribe hired a private investigator who worked with a Swain County sheriff’s detective so that it could have “a more comprehensive level of information in this case,” Hicks has said. Private investigators typically don’t work side by side with law enforcement.

• The move by Swain County commissioners to call for suspensions and later DSS board resignations is nearly unheard of in Western North Carolina.

• The SBI raided the DSS offices in Bryson City on Feb. 22, seizing records and computer hard drives. An SBI raid on a state office could signal high level of interest from prosecutors in the case. District Attorney Michael Bonfoey has declined comment. He typically does not discuss ongoing investigations.

No one has been charged in the case.

Justin Greene, the attorney for Swain County DSS, said his agency would honor the tribe’s request.

 

Swain County DSS director suspended during probe

http://www.thetimesnews.com/articles/director-42518-dss-probe.html

March 29, 2011 8:36 AM
The Associated Press
 

BRYSON CITY — The director of the Swain County Department of Social Services has been placed on leave while police investigate the death of a toddler who was being monitored by the agency.

The county DSS board voted Monday to put Tammy Cagle on paid leave.

A warrant by the State Bureau of Investigation says 15-month-old Aubrey Littlejohn died Jan. 10 after spending the previous day strapped in a car seat for 12 hours and getting only bites of a hot dog and sips of soda. Police say a great-aunt noticed the child was not breathing and took her to the Cherokee Indian Hospital.

A social worker already had been suspended during the investigation.

Officials are investigating whether the worker falsified records and whether his supervisor told him to do so.

 

Social safety net failed Cherokee baby

Wednesday, 27 April 2011 14:48

http://www.smokymountainnews.com/news/item/3828-social-safety-net-failed-cherokee-baby

Written by Becky Johnson

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 DSS director fired

http://www.citizen-times.com/article/20110624/NEWS01/110624036/Swain-DSS-director-fired

Written by Jon Ostendorff

11:38 AM, Jun. 24, 2011

BRYSON CITY — The Swain County social services board has fired its director months after the start of police investigation into the death of a child under the agency’s care.

Tammy Cagle was dismissed on Wednesday, the Department of Social Services said in a written statement today.

She was fired for insubordination and conduct unbecoming of a state employee detrimental to state service.

The statement doesn’t provide specific examples of her insubordination or conduct.

Cagle could not be reached on Friday.

The board put her on paid leave in March after county commissioners called for her suspension to allow for an unimpeded investigation into the death of 15-month-old Aubrey Littlejohn.

She died Jan. 10 after spending the previous day strapped into a car seat for 12 hours and receiving only bites of a hot dog and sips of soda, according to a search warrant filed by the State Bureau of Investigation.

Social worker Craig Smith, who visited Powell’s home five months before Aubrey died, has been suspended with pay pending the outcome of the investigation.

He was at the home acting on a tip that Aubrey fell down a set of stairs from an unbuckled car seat.

Smith told police he later falsified records after the child’s death to show he had made sure she was seen by a doctor for injuries from the fall, according to investigator’s statements in court papers. He told investigators his supervisor instructed him to fix the records.

The cause of death for the child is undetermined, according to an autopsy, though a medical examiner, could not rule out hypothermia.

The autopsy noted a healed fracture to her left arm though it does not say how old the injury was. It also noted bruises on her head, neck and back.

A toxicology test found no drugs in her blood other than caffeine and atropine, an ingredient in anti-mucus medications. Aubrey had been congested the night she died, according to the autopsy and court papers.

The report said the child was cold when she reached the hospital but that the temperature inside the home where she was sleeping was not recorded. It is also noted that it’s not known whether she was bundled for sleeping.

Police photos show a makeshift child’s bed in the corner of a bedroom.

 

 

Swain DSS director fired, lodges appeal

http://www.smokymountainnews.com/news/item/4312-swain-dss-director-fired-lodges-appeal

Wednesday, 29 June 2011 14:50

Written by Colby Dunn

Tammy Cagle, once the leader of the Swain County Department of Social Services, has been given the ax by the department’s board of directors.

Cagle, however, is fighting the decision. She’s appealed to the board, who handed down the decision in a closed hearing last week.

The five-member board let the former director go for charges of insubordination and conduct unbecoming to a state employee, but no further details were given in the statement released last week.

Swain DSS has been embroiled in controversy since the State Bureau of Investigation raided the agency and seized its computers in February as part of an ongoing probe into an alleged cover-up following the death of a 15-month-old Cherokee baby, Aubrey Littlejohn.

The child’s family members repeatedly warned Swain DSS of abuse and neglect, but social workers failed to remove the baby from its caretaker or adequately investigate the claims. After Aubrey’s death, social worker Craig Smith, falsified records to hide the negligence. Though he claims the cover-up was at the insistence of his superiors, Cagle denied the claim at a DSS board meeting earlier this month.

“Have I led or participated in any cover-up or falsification of records with this agency? No, absolutely not,” Cagle said.

Cagle was suspended with pay after the department launched its own investigation into the incident.

Her dismissal, however, is for reasons unrelated to Aubrey’s death and the furor surrounding the cover-up.

Smith has since resigned.

Board members wouldn’t comment on the decision, but it’s the culmination of a controversy that filled three of the five DSS board seats with new members.

Two-thirds of the former board resigned in protest when county commissioners called publicly for the suspension of Cagle during the probe into Aubrey’s death and the alleged cover-up at the agency.

Commissioners were mostly mum on this latest decision, though.

“It was entirely their [the DSS board’s] decision what happened,” said Commissioner Donnie Dixon. “We just wanted an investigation.”

Commissioner Robert White, who also chairs the DSS board, referred questions to the department’s attorney, Justin Greene, and other commissioners didn’t return calls or offered no comment.

Ruth McCoy, Aubrey’s aunt, said she and her family were pleased with the decision, but wished Cagle no ill.

“It’s not about the person, it’s about the position. The person in that position has to be in control of the people under them,” said McCoy. “We’re just glad that the board made the decision that they did with the director and hopefully the new director will come in and build good relationships with the tribe and the surrounding communities, so people have faith again in the DSS.”

Cagle has spent the last 13 years of her career with social services in Swain County, the last six as the director.

She started in 1998 as an entry-level social worker, moving up the ranks to supervisor, program director and, in 2005, director.

Since her suspension, the department has brought in Jerry Smith, a social work veteran from Brevard, as an interim director with extensive experience and degrees in the field.

In waiting for the investigation to wrap up, the county has been on the hook for both Cagle’s $66,000 salary and the cost to have Smith temporarily at the wheel.

Now that Cagle has lodged her appeal, the board will schedule another hearing to reexamine the case. Cagle will have another chance to appeal to the N.C. Office of State Personnel if the board upholds their June 21 decision.

In the meantime, the board has said it will keep Smith at the helm of DSS until a permanent replacement can be installed.

 

Former Swain County DSS director’s firing upheld

 by Katelyn Hackett  07/19/2011
BRYSON CITY, NC (AP) – Swain County’s social services board has refused to reinstate the agency’s former director.

The Asheville Citizen-Times reports the board decided Tammy Cagle didn’t show evidence its decision to fire her for insubordination and conduct infractions was wrong.

Cagle was suspended and later fired following the January death of 15-month-old Aubrey Littlejohn.

Former county social worker Craig Smith said he visited the girl’s home in late summer 2010 to investigate reports that she fell down a staircase. Smith said he was later instructed by his
supervisor to falsify records about whether he made sure the child received medical attention after the fall.

Investigators have said Aubrey spent 12 hours in a car seat with little nourishment the day before she died.

No one has been charged in the girl’s death.

 

Swain DSS ‘stretched thin’ prior to baby Aubrey’s death

http://www.smokymountainnews.com/news/item/4456-swain-dss-%E2%80%98stretched-thin%E2%80%99-prior-to-baby-aubrey%E2%80%99s-death

Wednesday, 20 July 2011 

Written by Becky Johnson 

 
Swain DSS ‘stretched thin’ prior to baby Aubrey’s death
 

Swain County social workers in charge of protecting children are paid less and handle more cases than those elsewhere in the state and region, factors that likely contribute to a higher-than-average turnover.

Swain’s Department of Social Services has been plagued by the loss of child welfare workers. It was chronically short staffed for much of last year — seven child welfare workers left over a nine-month period.

Each time one quit, the ones who remained had to pick up the pieces. Their work load increased. Cases were handed off midstream. The number of new hires in the ranks — lacking any formal training or education in the field — only made matters worse.

It was in this climate that the case of Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn slipped through the cracks. Despite repeated warnings from relatives that baby Aubrey was being mistreated and neglected, social workers failed to intervene.

When Social Worker Craig Smith finally paid Aubrey’s caregiver a visit last September, the caregiver chalked up bruises on the baby to a fall down the stairs.

Smith told her to take the baby in for a physical exam. But the doctor’s exam never happened. Smith either forgot, or was too busy to follow up. And four months later, Aubrey died alone on a mattress on the floor in the back room of a single-wide trailer in a case that has sparked far-reaching outrage and sympathy.

Smith has since admitted falsifying records to hide potential negligence and failures by the agency, according to law enforcement documents. He claims the orders to do so came from his superiors, and that knowledge of the cover-up went all the way to the top.

Swain DSS is under investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation. Its director has been fired and the majority of its board members replaced.

On the heels of the scandal, the state Department of Health and Human Services launched its own competency review of Swain DSS in March. The state audited a random sample of 57 child welfare cases to determine if Swain DSS was properly protecting children.

The state’s evaluation raised a red flag over the “significant turnover” in the past year.

“Turnover does have an adverse effect on the functioning of the agency. Turnover results in social workers being stretched thin to cover the workload of vacant positions,” according to the state review.

Furthermore, supervisors in charge of training new hires were not fully qualified to be in management roles, according to the report.

Smith, ironically, was not one of the many new hires at Swain DSS. He had been with the agency for four years.

But he was not untouched by the ripple effect of high turnover each time someone around him left.

“That person’s workload gets distributed among the survivors,” said Evelyn Williams, a clinical associate professor at the UNC School of Social Work.

Even once a replacement is found, the more experienced social workers often continue to shoulder a disproportionate case load, including the more difficult or complex cases — all the while trying to help the new workers learn the ropes.

The loss of a coworker can be more depressing than the sheer prospect of more work. Child welfare workers in a small agency can be tight knit and get depressed when they lose one of their own.

“It is really hard work to do. It is challenging work to do. It is emotional work to do,” Williams said. “Your coworkers become vital to your support system.”

 Off the charts

Swain County’s extreme turn-over last year among child welfare workers is more than twice the average turnover in the state.

While worse off than other counties, Swain is hardly alone in its struggle. Statewide, 50 percent of child welfare workers quit within two years. Only 25 percent stick with it longer than five.

“It is not easy to keep and recruit qualified social workers,” said Bob Cochran, director of Jackson County DSS. “It is not an easy job. It can be very stressful.”

Swain DSS has been fighting abnormally high turnover for years.

The caseload carried by Swain’s child welfare workers, even when fully staffed, is higher than other counties.

But its lower salaries are most often blamed as the culprit, as the prospect of better pay in surrounding counties lured staff away.

“The agency has historically provided training to new staff who then move on to better paying jobs,” Swain DSS leaders asserted in 2009 in a “self-assessment” included in the state’s performance review that same year.

It’s a point few could argue.

“Poor counties have difficulty holding good workers,” agreed Ira Dove, director of Haywood County DSS.

But salary is not everything. Social workers who are fulfilled in their jobs are more likely to stick with it.

And that’s where smaller DSS agencies in rural counties should have an advantage.

“Smaller counties have this wonderful work environment to offer,” said Evelyn Williams, a clinical associate professor at the UNC School of Social Work. “The director probably knows your name, there are collegial relationships that are very close and supportive. The whole pace and climate is often different in a positive way that may offset to some extent the lower salaries.”

In rural counties, case workers have a stronger sense of community, which can also make the job more rewarding, according to Patrick Betancourt, Policy Program Administrator at the N.C. Division of Social Services.

“Even though it is a non-tangible thing, it does motivate the worker to strive for the best practices they possibly can,” Betancourt said.

It can not only make up for lower salaries, but larger case loads.

“They can tolerate the heavy work load when they feel like they are making a difference,” Williams said.

However, there is a tipping point.

“The higher the work load, the less able they are to be engaged in a way that might make a difference,” Williams said. And likewise, “if the salary is really low and people don’t feel like it is a fair salary, then it is a major problem that has to be solved before anything else kicks in.”

Why stretched so thin?

Swain County child welfare workers routinely work more cases than they should under state standards.

But how many social workers to hire — along with how much to pay them — is up to each county. The state and federal governments pitch in some money to cover social workers’ salaries, but counties pick up most of the tab and set their own salaries  and staffing levels.

The state does, however, dictate a reasonable caseload — one that Swain routinely exceeded. Child welfare workers should have no more than 10 open cases at a time, according to state statute. Some Swain child welfare workers had nearly double that at times.

The state does not check for compliance to determine whether county DSS agencies are exceeding the maximum caseload for child welfare workers.

“Quite honestly, I believe that is a local responsibility,” said Sherry Bradsher, the state director of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Bradsher said it’s the job of the county DSS director “to make sure their agency is staffed appropriately.”

The state periodically does a performance review of each county DSS, about every three years or so. But caseload is not an area the state makes a habit of inspecting or asking about.

Bradsher said the state does keep monthly data on the number of child welfare cases in each county, and could feasibly calculate the caseload. But no one at the state level does so as a matter of course.

Besides, there are nuances behind the numbers.

“Just seeing we have 25 open cases doesn’t tell me a lot. How many are going to close in the next day or so? How many children are in each of those cases? How high risk are they?” Bradsher said. “It may be OK to be three or four cases over. I am not sure it is OK to have twice as many cases.”

If Bradsher learned that a county was routinely and egregiously exceeding the acceptable caseload, and she believed children’s safety was at risk as a result, it could trigger some heavy-handed intervention.

The state theoretically can seize control of child welfare functions, hire the necessary number of workers, and then bill the county for it, Bradsher said.

“We didn’t want situations where workers had too many cases,” Bradsher said of the state provision allowing for a take over. “Fortunately, we have never had to do that. Counties are very conscientious about the needs of child welfare. I think what you will find as far as positions across our state is most counties are appropriately staffed.”

However, an issue can arise when workers quit, Bradsher said.

“The problem comes in with vacancies. You have high turn over quite honestly, particularly in child welfare,” Bradsher said.

As the cases pile up, child welfare workers might be tempted to clear old cases from their books  to make room for new ones. But it is unlikely child welfare workers would lower the bar to close cases more quickly and stay within the maximum caseload, according to Betancourt.

“I wouldn’t say there is pressure to let cases slide,” Betancourt said. “But you are constantly evaluating cases for safety and risk. As you start getting nearer your maximum you look at is there continued risk? You start evaluating more closely.”

Social workers could theoretically spend years working with a family.

“That’s part of what drives you to be a social worker. Can you make this family the best it can possibly be?” Betancourt said.

But at some point the social worker has to decide the improvement in the child’s home environment is adequate.

“That is constantly the balancing game that social workers have to play,” Betancourt said.

Oversight in the ranks

In addition to case load, the state also sets standards for supervisor-to-staff ratio: one supervisor for every five child welfare case workers.

Many counties exceed the supervisor to staff ratio by one or two workers, but won’t bite the bullet and hire that additional supervisor until they hit three or four over.

With a staff of experienced child welfare workers, pushing the ratio may be fine. When there are lots of new hires in ranks as there were in Swain, the ratio of one-to-five may not be enough.

Finding experienced, qualified supervisors is just as challenging as finding rank-and-file child welfare workers.

Often, those who excel in their job are promoted to supervisor, Betancourt said. But a good case worker doesn’t automatically make a good supervisor.

Promoting supervisors from within without giving them proper management training was a problem at Swain DSS, according to the state’s competency review of the agency in March.

Child welfare supervisors did not provide adequate direction, coaching and oversight for the rank-and-file child welfare workers, particularly given their lack of training and the large number of new hires.

Tammy Cagle, the former DSS director, had herself risen in the ranks. She started out as an entry level social worker in 1998 and within seven years had worked her way up to director. Cagle made $66,000 a year, on the very low end of DSS directors. The DSS director in Haywood makes $93,000 and in Jackson he makes $106,000.

Cagle had not asked the county to add additional child welfare positions for at least two years, according to the agency.

However, the new interim director, Jerry Smith, told county leaders he needed an additional child welfare supervisor as soon as possible.

“He needs the staff,” County Manager Kevin King told commissioners last week.

Swain County commissioners granted Smith’s request.

Quality supervisors, and enough of them, helps with the challenge of hiring and keeping good social workers, according to experts in the field.

“I think the supervisor to worker ratio is real key,” said Bob Cochran, the director of Jackson County DSS. “That really makes the difference to help people go over cases and debrief and train, especially new workers. They need a lot of face time and support and encouragement. That is real critical.”

Betancourt agreed.

“Having a supervisor that can help in making tough decisions and provide good clinical feedback is important,” Betancourt said.

Swain DSS was suffering from low morale among workers last year, according to the minutes of DSS board meetings.

In January 2010, board minutes referenced low morale among workers and team-building efforts to improve it. In December, one board member noted an improvement in morale, at least judging by the good time staff had at the agency’s annual Christmas luncheon, according to the minutes of the meeting.

Proof is in the training

The challenge developing good child welfare workers — both recruiting and retaining them — is the on-going subject of research by Williams at the UNC School of Social Work, considered one of the best in the field.

Williams held a round-table focus group with DSS directors from several WNC counties in Sylva this winter.

All said they suffered from a limited pool of qualified applicants.

“Directors have what is called a grow-your-own strategy in many places and that makes sense. People who already live in the community, have a commitment to the community and understand the community,” Williams said.

The problem, however, is that they lack training or education in child welfare or social work.

The job can be a “rude awakening” for those who have no training in the field, Cochran said. They won’t last long as a result.

The shortage of child welfare workers, particularly those trained in the field, spawned a state incentive program offering college scholarships to students willing to major in social work and put in requisite time on the job after graduation.

Similar to the state’s Teaching Fellows concept, the Child Welfare Education Collaborative offers $6,000 a year for undergraduates majoring in the field. In exchange, they must put in one year on the job for every year of financial assistance.

Western Carolina University was among the first universities to participate when it was started four years ago.

Cochran said it has helped with hiring prospects locally.

“For people who have majored in child welfare or social work, there is a cognitive resonance in what their dreams and aspirations are and what they are doing,” Cochran said. “They are really fulfilled and living their dream and tend to stay longer.”

But for the vast majority who don’t have the degree, on-the-job training becomes a make-or-break factor, Cochran said. It’s best to ease them in to the job, allowing them to shadow other workers at first, then making sure their first solo cases are easier ones.

“That is really key to longevity: the feeling of mastery early on. If they get overwhelmed early, you can bet they won’t be around long,” Cochran said.

Of course, it’s easier said than done when the rest of the staff is over-worked, and eager to have the new hire take on a full load as quickly as possible to relieve the burden.

“If you are low staffed and have had some turnover everyone else is carrying the load and suffering a bit,” Cochran said. While it’s tempting to have them hit the ground running, Cochran refrains in favor of what he considers a “long-term investment” that starts with good training.

The qualifications to be a child welfare worker aren’t particularly tough. It takes a four-year degree in a related field — and what qualifies as a related field is open to interpretation. A basic liberal-arts English degree counts as a related field as far as many counties are concerned. If counties are particularly desperate for workers, the list of “related” fields could be quite long.

“Like many other small counties, Swain County often has to under fill social work positions with persons who demonstrate some abilities, but do not necessarily have the experience and skill level commensurate with the requirements of the position,” according to the state’s competency review of the agency in the wake of the scandal.

All new hires must attend 72 hours of classroom training. The crash course is put on several times a year at a training site in Asheville where all western counties send their new hires.

After that, they are technically certified to start working cases. The training can’t come close to preparing child welfare workers from the things they will witness: children in drug infested homes, children being sexually abused by their own fathers, children going hungry.

“You can see quite a bit of burn out in a job like this,” said Betancourt.

 Slipped through the cracks

Given the challenges recruiting and retaining child welfare workers, the lack of training for new hires, high caseloads in the face of turn over and generally stressful work, its not hard to understand how cases can fall through the cracks. But the consequences can clearly be tragic.

Smith was not the only social worker that witnessed Aubrey in a harmful environment.

In November of last year, social workers took an older child out of the same trailer where Aubrey lived, citing drug and alcohol use. Aubrey was left behind, however, despite social workers also witnessing extremely cold conditions in the trailer.

An autopsy report ruled hypothermia as a possible cause of death.

That same month, a third social worker made a yet another visit to the trailer, acting on yet another tip of abuse. Aubrey’s caregiver signed a statement promising not to physically punish Aubrey, who was only 13-months-old at the time. The autopsy report cited a previously broken arm and numerous recent bruises on her head.

Despite policies and procedures that are supposed to ensure the safety of children, there is not adequate oversight by the state when something goes wrong, said David Wijewickrama, a Waynesville attorney representing Aubrey’s family.

“The reason children contiunue to die in the state of North Carolina is because the state does not have on-site review that scrutinizes the actions of social workers and holds them personally accountable when it results in serious bodily injury of the death of a child,” Wijewickrama said.

Protecting children: by the numbers

Haywood DSS

Number of cases last year    1056

Child welfare supervisors    3.5

Child welfare workers    18

Starting salary    $37,500

Turn-over    4 last year; on par with previous years

Jackson DSS

Number of cases last year    666

Child welfare supervisors    2

Child welfare workers    11

Starting salary    $39,800

Turn-over    4 last year; higher than average

Swain DSS

Number of cases last year    528

Child welfare supervisors    2; soon to be 3

Child welfare workers    8

Starting salary    $33,000

Turn-over    7 last year

Comments on this story

Veronica 2011-07-20 18:09
Do not forget this is the same agency that allegedly had its employees using the DSS credit card for their personal use. I believe this agency has been foul for longer than that poor babys life.
 
Lisa Baldwin 2011-07-28 06:23
Scarce resources may be a problem but in Buncombe where social workers are often paid 50,000 plus. What is the excuse as 3 social workers and a supervisor-all worked our case at the same time —– held this kid hostage and punished him for being medically disabled?
By the way he is my son and I am a BSW -a social worker with a 4 year degree locally grown and raised. Is anyone getting the picture? Investigate our case as fradulent records and DSS record falsification are rampant throughout our case. This is why workers are over burdened with cases that they should have left alone and went after those monsters that let children die.Real abuse cases. Our family’s website will publish what really happened in DSS custody real soon. The torture our son was placed through. At the hands of yet another DSS agency. www.bringingryanhome.com
Scott Shannon 2011-08-31 20:54
My granddaughter, Sierra Shannon, is a victim of the Swain County DSS. This state sponsored abuse has been going on for more than a year, yet no local or regional media will write about it. My son has filed a $2.25 million lawsuit against the 28 people who are responsible for the atrocities that have been done. Interested readers can visit http://find-answers.info/Sierra-Shannon.html to see the full details. Sierra could use some community outrage about our local DSS placing a child with a child molester.

Mother still seeking answers in child’s death

http://www.news-record.com/content/2012/01/06/article/mother_still_seeking_answers_in_childs_death

SUNDAY, JANUARY 8, 2012
(Updated Wednesday, February 8 – 9:31 am)
By MITCH WEISS and
TOM BREEN
Associated Press
 
In this Aug. 8, 2011 photo, Jasmine Littlejohn talks about the death of her daughter Aubrey during an interview in her attorney’s office in Waynesville.
 

BRYSON CITY (AP) — Ruth McCoy says she pleaded for months to have her niece’s 1-year-old daughter removed from a dirty mobile home that did not have heat in western North Carolina.

When social workers and sheriff’s deputies arrived on a cold night in November 2010, they took the toddler’s 11-year-old cousin, leaving Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn behind at the relative’s house.

Two months later, the little girl was dead.

“I begged them to take my niece,” McCoy said. “I said, ‘What about her? You have to take her, too.’ They just left her. What they did was wrong.”

A year later, no one has been charged in the toddler’s death. The state medical examiner said she died of “undetermined” causes, but noted bruises and broken bones.

While Swain County authorities continue to investigate, The Associated Press found Aubrey was failed by virtually every institution that was supposed to protect her.

Despite repeated complaints from family members and friends, social workers left the toddler in an environment deemed unsafe for other children. After Aubrey’s death, social workers falsified records to cover their tracks, according to more than two dozen interviews and police and court documents. The sheriff’s department also had a chance to intervene, but deferred to social workers.

“Their behavior is inexcusable,” David Wijewickrama, an attorney for Aubrey’s mother, said of social workers and police.

Talmadge Jones of the Swain County Department of Social Services said he is prohibited by law from discussing the case.

The State Bureau of Investigation is looking into the death and the way the local agency handled her case.

“No one wanted to listen,” McCoy said. “No one wanted to help. This is a tragedy.”

Aubrey was born in October 2009 in Bryson City, a hardscrabble community in the Smoky Mountains. Like her mother, Aubrey was a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, a sovereign tribe whose casino is one of the region’s most important economic engines.

Her mother, Jasmine Littlejohn, had been in and out of trouble most of her life. She gave birth to Aubrey just months after being charged with three others on marijuana trafficking charges.

When she went to jail for a probation violation in April 2010, she turned to her aunts.

McCoy agreed to take care of Zoey, her older daughter, while Aubrey went to live with LadyBird Powell.

“I didn’t want to burden Aunt Ruth with two children,” Littlejohn told AP. “She had enough going on in her life. Plus, I thought it would be good for my Aunt Birdy.”

While Littlejohn was in jail awaiting trial on the marijuana charges, she said she never heard from Powell, 38. Family members told her they saw bruises on Aubrey. In one instance, Powell told family members the toddler was injured when she tumbled out of her car carrier and fell down several steps, according to police documents.

No one answered the door to Powell’s home, and she didn’t return multiple telephone messages.

When Littlejohn was released in October 2010, she went to get Aubrey, but Powell refused to let the girl leave until Littlejohn handed over half of her money tribe members receive annually from casino profits, Littlejohn said.

“I was shocked,” said Littlejohn, 21. “I said, ‘I’m not going to pay for my daughter. I want her back.’ Then she started raising her voice and getting real aggressive. She didn’t put her hands on me or nothing, but I could tell it was getting to that point.

She said she was worried that if she called police, she could get in trouble. After all, Littlejohn had just been released from jail and, if there was an altercation, who would believe her? She was afraid, so she left.

Littlejohn, McCoy and other family members said they returned to the trailer. But again, they said Powell refused to let the little girl go.

McCoy, a realty officer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said she continued to press authorities. She also worried about Aubrey’s cousin, the 11-year-old boy living with Powell.

“It just wasn’t a safe place,” McCoy said.

Swain County dispatch records show police visited Powell’s trailer three times between June and November 2010 on complaints that included domestic violence and a “drunk person causing a disturbance.” It’s not clear from the records who was intoxicated and or whether anyone was arrested. Police have refused to talk about the visits.

On Nov. 9, 2010, four sheriff’s deputies escorted several social workers to Powell’s home to investigate a complaint that the 11-year-old boy was living in a trailer with no heat and drugs. They removed the boy, placed him in McCoy’s custody and let Aubrey stay. The heat was off because the power bill wasn’t paid, but it’s unclear whether they found any drugs.

Under state Department of Health and Human Services guidelines, social workers are required to help all children living in unsafe conditions “whether or not they are named in the report.”

“We weren’t asked to remove the girl. We weren’t there for that,” Sheriff Curtis Cochran said. “If DSS had asked us, we would have done it.”

In North Carolina, the decision to remove a child rests with the county social services agency, according to Doriane Coleman, an expert on children’s law at Duke University Law School.

“There’s so much discretion built into the system, which is why mistakes are made sometimes,” she said. “You might get some counties that are more inclined to protect families than others. You get counties that are very ‘hear no evil, see no evil.’”

Nearly two months after she tried to get her daughter from the home, Littlejohn reported to jail to await trial in the marijuana case, with Powell still caring for Aubrey.

On Jan. 10, 2011, Powell and her boyfriend rushed Aubrey into the Cherokee Indian Hospital emergency room at 3:20 a.m. Thirty-six minutes later, the girl was pronounced dead.

Powell told Swain County Sheriff’s Detective Carolyn Posey that Aubrey was fine when she put the girl to bed. But when she checked a few hours later, she wasn’t breathing.

Posey called DSS and discovered the agency had at least two reports of neglect or abuse regarding Aubrey, according to police documents.

She met with several social workers, including Tammy Cagle, who headed the county social services agency at the time. It took two weeks, but when Posey received documents she requested, she discovered some were missing.

One report from social worker Craig Smith jumped out. He wrote that he received a complaint Sept. 15 that Aubrey had fallen down. He said he visited Powell a day later and the house was clean and stocked with food. But he also noticed a “small scratch” on the girl’s face, and told Powell to take her to the doctor.

Smith wrote he contacted the hospital to verify the visit, saying he talked to Dr. Dominique Toadt, but the physician told Posey she never treated the toddler or spoke with Smith.

Smith said he was instructed by his supervisors to falsify the records. He said his immediate supervisor, Candice Lassiter, “had given him (Smith) a handwritten note advising him what needed to be in his narrative,” according to police documents.

The detective interviewed more than a dozen people who said they “witnessed physical abuse and neglect inflicted on the child and observed no food, a lack of heat and other inadequacies in the home environment,” documents said. The witnesses said they contacted social workers, but didn’t receive a response.

Investigators on Feb. 21 seized items at the county social services office, including computers and thumb drives.

Since then, four DSS workers, including Lassiter, were suspended. Cagle, the agency’s director, was fired for what county officials said were unrelated reasons. Smith resigned.

Repeated telephone messages for Lassiter, Cagle and the other social workers were not returned. Through his lawyer, Smith declined to comment.

Meanwhile, friends and family members are frustrated at the pace of the investigation.

“This little girl is dead and they haven’t told us anything,” said McCoy, who still has custody of Zoey and a son born to Littlejohn after Aubrey’s death. “No one has been charged. This is very, very hard for all of us.”

Sheriff Cochran declined to discuss details, saying it’s an active investigation.

The state HHS has a board that reviews fatalities involving children who had contact with DSS in the year prior to their death. The board is made up of local and state officials who examine the death and make recommendations. The process is supposed to be quick, so officials can learn from mistakes.

In Aubrey’s case, a board hasn’t been appointed nearly a year later.

“There will be a review,” agency spokeswoman Renee McCoy said.

She said the SBI investigation will be part of the board’s review, as well as Swain County DSS notes and other documents.

While the community waits, Littlejohn pleaded guilty to drug trafficking and is serving two years.

She spends her days thinking about her daughter.

“Why has it taken so long for Swain County to do something for my baby?” she asked. “That’s my question I have for the investigators. What’s taking so long?”

 

Woman says DSS failed her family in niece’s death

http://www.newsobserver.com/2012/01/08/1761019/mom-still-seeking-answers-in-childs.html

PUBLISHED SUN, JAN 08, 2012 04:12 AM
MODIFIED SUN, JAN 08, 2012 04:21 AM

BY MITCH WEISS AND TOM BREEN - ASSOCIATED PRESS

BRYSON CITY — Ruth McCoy says she pleaded for months to have her niece’s 1-year-old daughter removed from a dirty mobile home that did not have heat.

When social workers and sheriff’s deputies arrived on a cold night in November 2010, they took the toddler’s 11-year-old cousin, leaving Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn behind at the relative’s house.

Two months later, the little girl was dead.

“I begged them to take my niece,” McCoy said. “I said, ‘What about her? You have to take her, too.’ They just left her. What they did was wrong.”

A year later, no one has been charged in the toddler’s death. The state medical examiner said she died of “undetermined” causes but noted bruises and broken bones.

While authorities in Swain County continue to investigate, The Associated Press found Aubrey was failed by virtually every institution that was supposed to protect her.

Despite repeated complaints from family members and friends, social workers left the toddler in an environment deemed unsafe for other children. After Aubrey’s death, social workers falsified records to cover their tracks, according to more than two dozen interviews and police and court documents. The sheriff’s department in the Western North Carolina county also had a chance to intervene but deferred to social workers.

“Their behavior is inexcusable,” David Wijewickrama, an attorney for Aubrey’s mother, said of social workers and police.

Talmadge Jones of the Swain County Department of Social Services said he is prohibited by law from discussing the case.

The State Bureau of Investigation is looking into the death and the way the local agency handled her case.

“No one wanted to listen,” McCoy said. “No one wanted to help. This is a tragedy.”

A failed reunion

Aubrey was born in October 2009 in Bryson City, a hardscrabble community in the Smoky Mountains. Like her mother, Aubrey was a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, a sovereign tribe whose casino is one of the region’s most important economic engines.

Her mother, Jasmine Littlejohn, had been in and out of trouble most of her life. She gave birth to Aubrey just months after being charged with three others on marijuana trafficking charges.

When she went to jail for a probation violation in April 2010, she turned to her aunts.

McCoy agreed to take care of Zoey, her older daughter, while Aubrey went to live with LadyBird Powell.

“I didn’t want to burden Aunt Ruth with two children,” Littlejohn told AP. “She had enough going on in her life. Plus, I thought it would be good for my Aunt Birdy.”

While Littlejohn was in jail awaiting trial on the marijuana charges, she said she never heard from Powell, 38. Family members told her they saw bruises on Aubrey. In one instance, Powell told family members the toddler was injured when she tumbled out of her car carrier and fell down several steps, according to police documents.

No one answered the door to Powell’s home, and she didn’t return multiple telephone messages.

When Littlejohn was released in October 2010, she went to get Aubrey, but Powell refused to let the girl leave until Littlejohn handed over half of her money tribe members receive annually from casino profits, Littlejohn said.

“I was shocked,” said Littlejohn, 21. “I said, ‘I’m not going to pay for my daughter. I want her back.’ Then she started raising her voice and getting real aggressive. She didn’t put her hands on me or nothing, but I could tell it was getting to that point.”

She said she was worried that if she called police, she could get in trouble. After all, Littlejohn had just been released from jail and, if there was an altercation, who would believe her? She was afraid, so she left.

Littlejohn, McCoy and other family members said they returned to the trailer. But again, they said Powell refused to let the little girl go.

McCoy, a realty officer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said she continued to press authorities. She also worried about Aubrey’s cousin, the 11-year-old boy living with Powell. “It just wasn’t a safe place,” McCoy said.

A daughter’s death

Nearly two months after she tried to get her daughter from the home, Littlejohn reported to jail to await trial in the marijuana case, with Powell still caring for Aubrey. On Jan. 10, 2011, Powell and her boyfriend rushed Aubrey into the Cherokee Indian Hospital emergency room at 3:20 a.m. Thirty-six minutes later, the girl was pronounced dead.

Powell told Swain County Sheriff’s Detective Carolyn Posey that Aubrey was fine when she put the girl to bed. But when she checked a few hours later, she wasn’t breathing. Posey called DSS and discovered the agency had at least two reports of neglect or abuse regarding Aubrey, according to police documents.

She met with several social workers, including Tammy Cagle, who headed the county social services agency at the time. It took two weeks, but when Posey received documents she requested, she discovered some were missing.

‘What’s taking so long?’

Since then, four DSS workers, including Candice Lassiter, a supervisor accused of telling subordinates to misrepresent Aubrey’s well-being, were suspended. Cagle, the agency’s director, was fired for what county officials said were unrelated reasons. Smith resigned.

Repeated telephone messages for Lassiter, Cagle and the other social workers were not returned. Through his lawyer, Smith declined to comment.

Meanwhile, friends and family members are frustrated at the pace of the investigation.

“This little girl is dead, and they haven’t told us anything,” said McCoy, who still has custody of Zoey and a son born to Littlejohn after Aubrey’s death. “No one has been charged. This is very, very hard for all of us.”

Sheriff Curtis Cochran declined to discuss details, saying it’s an active investigation.

The state HHS has a board that reviews fatalities involving children who had contact with DSS in the year prior to their death. The board is made up of local and state officials who examine the death and make recommendations. The process is supposed to be quick, so officials can learn from mistakes.

In Aubrey’s case, a board hasn’t been appointed nearly a year later. “There will be a review,” agency spokeswoman Renee McCoy said.

While the community waits, Littlejohn pleaded guilty to drug trafficking and is serving two years. She spends her days thinking about her daughter.

“Why has it taken so long for Swain County to do something for my baby?” she asked. “That’s my question I have for the investigators. What’s taking so long?”

 

Great-aunt charged in Swain County toddler’s death

http://www.knoxnews.com/news/2012/feb/04/great-aunt-charged-swain-county-toddlers-death/

 Published: Saturday, February 4, 2012 at 2:25 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 4, 2012 at 2:25 p.m.

BRYSON CITY, N.C. (AP) — The great-aunt of a 15-month-old baby has been charged with murdering the little girl after a yearlong death investigation and an effort to explain why social workers allowed the child to remain in the woman’s home for months after an 11-year-old boy was removed.

LadyBird Powell is being held on a second-degree murder charge in the death of Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn, and will have her first court appearance Monday, Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran said Friday. Powell’s bail was set at $1 million.

“This has been one of the hardest cases that we have had to investigate, primarily because of the age of the child. As a parent, it is hard to imagine any child being taken away at such an early age,” Cochran said in a statement. “There has been a great expression of concern from Aubrey’s family members, and we want everyone in Swain County to know that we have never stopped working on this case.”

Powell was taking care of Aubrey while the toddler’s mother was in jail. In November 2010, several Department of Social Services workers came to Powell’s home to investigate a complaint about the treatment of an 11-year-old boy there. The boy was removed because the home had no heat, but the toddler was allowed to stay.

Social workers had also been in the house two months earlier, and one of them noted that Powell did not follow his orders to take the girl to the doctor after he noticed a scratch on her face. That worker told detectives that his supervisors told him to falsify records of the visit.

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Powell brought the toddler to the hospital in January 2011, and the baby died a short time later. Powell said the girl was fine when she put her to bed, but she found her not breathing several hours later. Authorities didn’t detail how they think the girl died, but a medical examiner’s report noted bruises and broken bones.

Powell is also charged with first-degree kidnapping, child abuse and drug counts. It wasn’t clear if she had an attorney.

The sheriff said the kidnapping charge came after Powell refused to give the girl back to her mother after she got out of jail unless she gave Powell her share of casino proceeds she was entitled to because she was a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, which runs the gambling hall in the county.

The case prompted state DSS officials to promise a more speedy review of high-profile cases involving mistakes made by social workers in an effort to prevent future tragedies.

The sheriff said the case remains under investigation.

 

 

Swain DSS officials arrested

Charges result from toddler’s death

http://www.citizen-times.com/article/20120207/NEWS/302070082/Swain-DSS-officials-arrested

Written by Jon Ostendorff

Feb. 7, 2012

BRYSON CITY — A supervisor and social worker at the Swain County Department of Social Services were charged with felonies Tuesday in connection with the agency’s oversight of a 15-month-old girl whose death came amid evidence of abuse.

grand jury indicted supervisor Candice Lassiter on three felony counts of forgery and three felony counts of obstruction of justice after a State Bureau of Investigation inquiry.

She is on administrative leave, said agency attorney Justin Greene, and could not immediately be reached for comment.

The same grand jury indicted social worker Craig Smith on three counts of obstruction of justice, according to court records.

Smith no longer works for the agency. He also could not immediately be reached.

SBI agents a year ago searched the county’s DSS office as part of an investigation into the events surrounding the death of Aubrey Littlejohn.

The toddler died Jan. 10, 2011, at the Cherokee Indian Hospital about 15 minutes after being brought in by her great-aunt, Lady Bird Powell.

Powell was charged last week with the child’s second-degree murder, felony child abuse, first-degree kidnapping, extortion and possession of methamphetamine.

The child was left in a car seat for 12 hours the day before and given only few bites of a hot dog and sips of soda, according to court papers.

She was wrapped in a blanket and wearing only a diaper soaked in urine and feces and a T-shirt when she arrived at the hospital, according to an investigator’s statement in a search warrant.

Officials said the child’s body temperature was 84 degrees when she was brought in.

Powell had been caring for the child while the girl’s mother was in jail. An autopsy report said the cause of death was undetermined.

Smith visited her home five months before she died but found no evidence of abuse despite a complaint the girl had fallen from an unbuckled car seat down a set of stairs, according to an SBI search warrant.

Smith later falsified his records after Aubrey Littlejohn died to show he had called the hospital to make sure she was examined for injuries from the fall, investigators said in the search warrant.

Lassiter was his supervisor.

 

 

Swain Co. DSS Supervisor Faces 6 Felony Charges In Death Of Toddler

http://www2.wspa.com/news/2012/feb/07/swain-co-dss-supervisor-faces-6-felony-charges-dea-ar-3189979/

By: WSPA Staff | News Channel 7
Published: February 07, 2012
 
SWAIN COUNTY, N.C. –A local DSS supervisor faces six felony charges stemming from the death of a 15-month-old North Carolina girl that happened nearly a year ago.Asheville Citizen Times reports Candice Lassiter, who works with Swain County’s Department of Social Services, was indicted Tuesday on forgery and obstruction of justice charges.North Carolina state investigators searched the DSS office as part of the investigation into Aubrey Littlejohn’s death.Investigators say Littlejohn was strapped in a car seat for 12 hours and given little food or water before she died.Her great aunt, Ladybird Powell, was charged with 2nd degree murder, child abuse, kidnapping and extortion last week.
 

 

Aubrey Littlejohn’s Death Leads to 2 Arrests So Far

http://www.digtriad.com/news/local/story.aspx?storyid=213180

5:17 PM, Feb 7, 2012

Bryson City, NC– A supervisor and social worker at the Swain County Department of Social Services were charged with felonies Tuesday in connection with the death of a 15-month-old girl.

Candice Lassiter is on administrative leave, said agency attorney Justin Greene.

A grand jury indicted her on three felony counts of forgery and three felony counts of obstruction of justice after an N.C. State Bureau of Investigation inquiry.

She could not immediately be reached for comment.

A grand jury indicted social worker Craig Smith on three counts of obstruction of justice, according to court records. He also could not immediately be reached.

SBI agents a year ago searched the county’s DSS office as part of an investigation into the events surrounding the death of Aubrey Littlejohn.

The toddler died Jan. 10, 2011, at the Cherokee Indian Hospital about 15 minutes after being brought in by her great-aunt, Lady Bird Powell.

Powell was charged last week with the child second-degree murder, felony child abuse, first-degree kidnapping, extortion and possession of methamphetamine.

The child was left in a car seat for 12 hours the day before, and given only few bites of a hot dog and sips of soda, according to court papers.

She was wrapped in a blanket and wearing only a diaper soaked in urine and feces and a T-shirt when she arrived at the hospital, according to an investigator’s statement in a search warrant.

Smith visited her home five months before she died but found no evidence of abuse despite a complaint the girl had fallen from an unbuckled car seat down a set of stairs, according to an SBI search warrant.

Smith later falsified his records after Aubrey Littlejohn died to show he had called the hospital to make sure she was examined for injuries from the fall, investigators said in the search warrant.

Lassiter was his supervisor.

 

 

More arrests in tragic Littlejohn death

http://theonefeather.com/2012/02/more-arrests-in-tragic-littlejohn-death/

February 9, 2012

By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.

ONE FEATHER STAFF

In the wake of Ladybird Powell being arrested and charged with second degree murder in the January 2011 death of Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn, more arrests have been made.  A Swain DSS supervisor and her former subordinate were indicted on Tuesday, Feb. 7 on charges relating to an alleged cover-up of the incidents leading up to Littlejohn’s tragic death.

Candice Lassiter was indicted by a grand jury and charged with three counts of Obstruction of Justice and three counts of Forgery and Smith was charged with three counts of Obstruction of Justice.

Lassiter was Smith’s supervisor at the time of incidents leading up to Littlejohn’s death.  Smith is no longer with the agency and Lassiter is on administrative leave.

Lady Bird Powell, Littlejohn’s aunt, was arrested on Friday, Feb. 3 by officers of the Swain County Sheriff’s Office and the Cherokee Indian Police Department and charged with Second Degree Murder, First Degree Kidnapping, Extortion, Possession of Methamphetamine, Possession of Drug Paraphernalia and two counts of Felony Child Abuse.

As a result of an investigation into a possible cover-up in the case, Swain County DSS offices were raided on the morning of Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011 and computers and records were seized.

According to court papers filed at the time, Smith documented that he placed a phone call on Sept. 24, 2010 to Cherokee Indian Hospital and spoke with a doctor regarding a visit following a fall by Aubrey.

According to the court papers, Swain County Sheriff’s Department Detective Carolyn Posey and Daniel Cheatham, the private investigator hired by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to aid in the investigation, formally interviewed the doctor in Smith’s report who told them that she had never had a phone conversation with Smith and had never seen nor examined Aubrey Littlejohn.

The court papers state that the investigators approached Smith with evidence of the “non-existent telephone” call and he admitted to making it up.

Smith also related that “he had documented that false conversation because he was instructed to do so by his supervisor Social Worker Supervisor Candice Lassiter” who allegedly gave Smith a handwritten note on what to include in the narrative.

An autopsy report was released on Littlejohn in May 2010.  The report states, “Overall, the findings of the autopsy were nonspecific.  There was no evidence of significant acute physical trauma or infection.  There were no benzodiazephines, cocaine, ethanol, opiates/opioids, or organic bases detected in the decedent’s blood.”

According to the toxicology report, the only drugs present in her system were caffeine and Atropine which, according to the autopsy report, is used in resuscitation efforts and is also found in many cold medications.

While the autopsy was nonspecific about her death, there were questions about hypothermia  as Littlejohn’s core temperature was documented the night of her death by Cherokee Indian Hospital officials as 84 degrees Fahrenheit.  “The nonspecific findings of hypothermia are not present in this case; however, it is not possible to exclude death from hypothermia,” the report states.

“This has been one of the hardest cases that we have had to investigate, primarily because of the age of the child,” Swain County Sheriff Curtis A. Cochran said in a statement following the arrest of Powell.  “As a parent, it is hard to imagine any child being taken away at such an early age.  The law enforcement community is committed to the pursuit of justice and assisting those who cannot help themselves.”

 
 

 

Lawyers file claim with state over NC girl’s death

Feb 16, 2012 5:24pm
 

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Even though social service workers had been told that 15-month-old Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn was in danger, the Swain County agency failed to take action that could have prevented her death, according to a complaint filed Thursday with the state Industrial Commission.

“The abuse and neglect which Aubrey suffered before her death would have been apparent to any department of social services which was properly discharging its legal duties and obligations,” reads the complaint, filed by attorneys Frederick Barbour and David Wijewickrama, on behalf of Aubrey’s estate.

Calls to the Swain County Department of Social Services were not immediately returned Thursday. A spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Human Services said the agency had no comment on the wrongful death claim, which seeks unspecified damages.

According to the complaint, there were three separate reports that Aubrey was being abused by her great aunt, LadyBird Powell, between September and November 2010. The girl died the following January after being taken to a nearby hospital.

Powell was arrested last month and is being held on a second-degree murder charge in the Swain County jail.

An Associated Press investigation found that police and social workers had been aware of reports Aubrey was being mistreated while she was staying with Powell. Two months before Aubrey died, authorities removed a different child from Powell’s home but left Aubrey behind.

Two Swain County social service workers have been charged with falsifying records and indicted on obstruction of justice charges in Aubrey’s death.

Candice Lassiter and Craig Smith are scheduled to appear in court Feb. 27. Lassiter is also facing forgery charges stemming from the case.

Smith was a social worker for the Swain County Department of Social Services and Lassiter was his supervisor. Police say that after Aubrey’s death, Lassiter ordered Smith to falsify records to make it appear as though the department had done a thorough investigation into allegations that Aubrey was being abused by Powell.

Wijewickrama said he wants the state to make changes to prevent other deaths. The state Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for the administration, enforcement and funding of programs for the placement, care and protection of children within North Carolina. He said the agency had a duty to monitor social service departments in the state — but failed to do its job.

“We hope that the policies and procedures that allowed this tragedy to occur are changed, and the people that were responsible for allowing this tragedy are held accountable and punished accordingly,” he said. “I am deeply concerned that the state will not take the appropriate interest and change policies and laws to make mandatory, the recommended changes that would change the way departments across the state conduct investigations and implement safety protocols that save young children’s lives.”

 

 

Lawyers file wrongful death claim with NC Industrial Commission over Swain County toddler

http://www.therepublic.com/view/story/f6efa62156a54a85b4fb7cd74a83a633/NC–Babys-Death-DSS/

TOM BREEN  Associated Press

First Posted: February 16, 2012 – 5:24 pm

Last Updated: February 16, 2012 – 8:55 pm

RALEIGH, N.C. — Even though social service workers had been told that 15-month-old Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn was in danger, the Swain County agency failed to take action that could have prevented her death, according to a complaint filed Thursday with the state Industrial Commission.

“The abuse and neglect which Aubrey suffered before her death would have been apparent to any department of social services which was properly discharging its legal duties and obligations,” reads the complaint, filed by attorneys Frederick Barbour and David Wijewickrama, on behalf of Aubrey’s estate.

Calls to the Swain County Department of Social Services were not immediately returned Thursday. A spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Human Services said the agency had no comment on the wrongful death claim, which seeks unspecified damages.

According to the complaint, there were three separate reports that Aubrey was being abused by her great aunt, LadyBird Powell, between September and November 2010. The girl died the following January after being taken to a nearby hospital.

Powell was arrested last month and is being held on a second-degree murder charge in the Swain County jail.

An Associated Press investigation found that police and social workers had been aware of reports Aubrey was being mistreated while she was staying with Powell. Two months before Aubrey died, authorities removed a different child from Powell’s home but left Aubrey behind.

Two Swain County social service workers have been charged with falsifying records and indicted on obstruction of justice charges in Aubrey’s death.

Candice Lassiter and Craig Smith are scheduled to appear in court Feb. 27. Lassiter is also facing forgery charges stemming from the case.

Smith was a social worker for the Swain County Department of Social Services and Lassiter was his supervisor. Police say that after Aubrey’s death, Lassiter ordered Smith to falsify records to make it appear as though the department had done a thorough investigation into allegations that Aubrey was being abused by Powell.

Wijewickrama said he wants the state to make changes to prevent other deaths. The state Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for the administration, enforcement and funding of programs for the placement, care and protection of children within North Carolina. He said the agency had a duty to monitor social service departments in the state — but failed to do its job.

“We hope that the policies and procedures that allowed this tragedy to occur are changed, and the people that were responsible for allowing this tragedy are held accountable and punished accordingly,” he said. “I am deeply concerned that the state will not take the appropriate interest and change policies and laws to make mandatory, the recommended changes that would change the way departments across the state conduct investigations and implement safety protocols that save young children’s lives.”

Child fatality review in Swain case held up by state backlog

http://www.smokymountainnews.com/news/item/6362-child-fatality-review-in-swain-case-held-up-by-state-backlog

Wednesday, 29 February 2012 16:41

Written 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.

 
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