Two years after the death of 15-month-old Aubrey Littlejohn, a conviction has been made. A Swain County woman pleaded guilty last Monday to killing her 15-month-old niece in a case in which social workers are accused of ignoring, then covering up the child's abuse until after her death.
Ladybird Powell, 39, of Bryson City, appeared in Swain County Superior Court on March 4, where she pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, extortion, possession of drug paraphernalia and two counts of felony child abuse.
Judge James Downs sentenced Powell to 12 years in prison.
Powell was originally arrested and charged with second-degree murder, two counts of felony child abuse, kidnapping, extortion, and possession of methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia on Feb. 3 2012, just one year after Aubrey Littlejohn's death.
According to court records, Aubrey was left alone in soiled diapers, and despite repeated reports to DSS, she was never removed from Powell’s care.
The toddler died Jan. 10, 2011, after she was taken to Cherokee Indian Hospital. Last year, officials reported that when she arrived at the hospital, Aubrey had a below normal temperature and visible injuries. According to the autopsy report, the child’s cause of death was undetermined.
The child died while in the care of her great aunt while the infant’s mother, Jasmine Littlejohn, was in jail following unrelated drug charges.
After Aubrey’s death in 2011, an investigation ensued into how the Swain County Department of Social Services handled the case. Caseworker Craig Smith reportedly visited the home five months prior to the child’s death after receiving reports of the Powell’s home being unsafe. After the visit, Smith reported there was no evidence of abuse despite complaints.
While Powell was caring for the 15-month-old, she was also caring for Aubrey’s 11-year-old cousin, whom DSS removed from Powell’s home after reporting that the home was not safe. DSS failed to remove Aubrey at that time.
After the child died, Smith admitted to falsifying records, acting under the instruction of his supervisor, to show he had called the hospital to make sure the child was examined for injuries from a fall she reportedly had while in Littlejohn's care, investigators said in a search warrant.
The State Bureau of Investigation and the Swain County Sheriff’s Office began investigating the case to determine if there was any fault or wrongdoing that could be attributed to Swain County DSS employees.
In March of 2011 Swain County Commissioners asked the DSS Board to suspend four employees with pay while the SBI investigated Aubrey’s case. According to Commissioners, the suspension of the employees directly associated with Aubrey’s case would ultimately benefit the DSS program by allowing the investigation to proceed while assuring the public that DSS would continue to provid needed services. Commissioners noted that suspending employees who are being investigated is a common practice for counties across the state.
The DSS Board, which is comprised of two members appointed by county commissioners, two members appointed by the governor and the fifth member appointed by the four DSS members, deliberated for three hours during closed session in a special called meeting following the commissioners recommendation, but voted to take no action against the employees under investigation.
Without informing the DSS Board first, Swain County Commissioners released a statement to the media condemning the board for their inaction and requesting that they immediately resign from their posts.
Angered by the actions of the county commissioners, three DSS Board members resigned from their positions. The then Chairman of the board, Jim Gribble, and members Wally Treadway and Bob Thomas gave their letters of resignation.
“My heart deeply aches because of what has occurred in our community,” said Gribble. “I am deeply troubled over the loss of an innocent, defenseless child, Aubrey Littlejohn,” he continued. “The fact that we could not reach a consensus on the recommendation that you made does not mean that we did not vote… The actions of a few irritated commissioners that made us a spectacle only served to feed the media and create further hostilities… I sincerely hope that the investigation is completed in a timely manner and questions answered so that healing can then begin,” concluded Gribble.
Bob Thomas, who also resigned from the DSS board, added his comments on the way the commission conducted its business.
“It was indeed a shock when I heard, through the media, that you had asked for our resignations … I resigned, not because you suggested we do so, but because I am fed up, frustrated and disgusted beyond description with you, the commissioners,” said Thomas. “To vilify the DSS board the way you did is inexcusable and abhorrent. ...Statements have been freely given by the public and repeated over and over in the media frenzy,” added Thomas. “However, confidentiality laws bind the DSS staff and board… It is my sincere desire that truth will prevail, that justice will be served, that the guilty will be punished and the innocent will be exonerated.”
Following the voluntary resignation of members of the DSS Board, new board members were appointed and the new board voted to suspend the employees who were being investigated in connection with Aubrey’s death.
In late March 2011, The North Carolina Division of Social Services approved the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ request to ban the Swain County DSS employees being investigated from working on the reservation.
The reservation does not have their own DSS office, and cases are typically handled by either Jackson or Swain County offices.
In June 2011, Tammy Cagle, Director of the Swain County DSS office, was fired for insubordination and conduct unbecoming of a state employee detrimental to state service. Cagle had been on paid leave since the previous March, while the investigation ensued after Aubrey’s death.
Although arrests have been made, the investigation is still ongoing and will continue until State authorities conclude that their efforts are complete.
The caseworker handling Aubrey’s case at the time of her death, Craig Smith, was arrested Tuesday Feb. 7 2012 and was charged with three counts of obstruction of justice. His bond was set at $25,000 unsecured.
Candace Lassiter, a supervisor with the Swain County Department of Social Services at the time of the incident was also arrested on Feb. 7 2012 and was charged with three counts of obstruction of justice and three counts of forgery.
According to court reports from the State Bureau of Investigation, Lassiter instructed Smith to falsify documents associated with Aubrey’s death.