Swain County Commissioners have made an informal request to the Swain County Department of Social Services that they suspend four more employees associated with a case of aggravated neglect that led to the death of a 15- month old little girl on Jan. 10.
Commissioner David Montieth said he made the request that the employees be suspended while an investigation into the actions of the DSS staff is still under way, the employees are charged, proven innocent or convictions made. The request was not a formal one because it was not on the agenda at the regular meeting Monday, Monteith said.
Commissioners Donnie Dixon and Phil Carson agreed with Montieth at the meeting, but before they could go any further with their request, DSS board Chairman Jim Gribble spoke up to suggest that the two boards discuss the issue in a joint meeting. A meeting has been scheduled for Thursday, at 5 p.m. in the Swain County Administration Building.
Social worker Craig Smith reportedly has already been suspended by the DSS board. Counting Smith, a total of five DSS employees are now being implicated in an alleged cover-up and mishandling of the case of the child, Aubrey Littlejohn, who was under the care of her great aunt at the time of her death.
“The board of commissioners does not have control over the DSS board except for appointing two of its members. The DSS board hires and fires the director,” Monteith said. The DSS board has no control over the employees. The director, Tammy Cagle, who was named by the commissioners as one of the employees to be suspended, hires and fires the employees, according to Montieth.
“For the sake of the DSS program and the people who work there, the best thing is for all five of them to be laid off temporarily with pay until it is resolved one way or another. Then they can go back to work if it is proven they are innocent or let go if they are found guilty. It would make it easier for everyone in the community,” Monteith said.
Littlejohn, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, allegedly died while in the care of her great aunt, Ladybird Powell, who has been the infant’s primary caretaker since her mother, Jasmine Littlejohn, went to jail on unrelated drug charges.
Powell dismisses the claim that she neglected the child while she was in her care. Powell claims that she does not know why Aubrey died. At about 3 a.m. on Jan. 10, Powell noticed that the toddler wasn’t breathing. She says she then took her to the Cherokee Indian Hospital, calling 9-1-1 on the way while trying to perform CPR on the lifeless child.
Eyewitness reports collected in police investigations claim that on a day during which Powell and her husband had been cleaning a house, the child had not been fed and was left in a car seat for as many as 16 hours. Powell has also denied these charges.
Because the child was living in Swain County at the time of her death, her case fell under the jurisdiction of the Swain County DSS. The investigation was requested by District Attorney Mike Bonfoey after law enforcement officers investigating the child’s death discovered numerous inconsistencies in the stories of family members and caseworkers.
The death of Littlejohn left investigators with a string of tangled and contradictory stories beginning with possible mistreatment by the baby’s caretaker and ending DSS’s involvement. As stated in a Feb. 21 search warrant, the criminal charges being investigated include “common law felony obstruction of justice being infamous, done in secrecy and malice, and/or with deceit and intent to defraud.”
According to the search warrant, Smith allegedly attempted to cover up the sequence of events preceding the death of Littlejohn. An examination of case documents found that pages were missing from the reports and other reports were incomplete. Smith also claimed to have made phone calls about Littlejohn to a Dr. Toedt at the Cherokee Indian Hospital. He later told investigators that he had not made the calls he earlier claimed to have made.
Smith visited Powell’s house five months before Aubrey died to investigate a complaint that she had fallen down the stairs. He found no evidence of abuse but according to police records, asked Powell to have the child examined at the hospital. Investigators later learned that the child was not examined.
Smith alleges that his supervisor, Candice Lassiter, had instructed him to falsify documents about the calls and that other caseworkers had been involved further in the cover up. He admitted to “knowingly” altering and falsifying official records, concerning Littlejohn, at Lassiter’s direction.
According to Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran, he wasn’t sure if DSS was back on their regular work schedule, but that the case was still under investigation at this point. “We are through at the DSS offices with what we were doing under the search warrant,” Cochran said. As the investigation continues, the DSS offices are operating under regular hours Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.