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

The Swain County Department of Social Services building with Bryson City and the Great Smoky Mountains in the background.The Swain County Department of Social Services was locked down early Tuesday morning by the State Bureau of Investigation.

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.

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