Community objects to release of statement to media
Three members of the Board of Directors for the Swain County Department of Social Services resigned last Thursday, March 10, in the continued in-fighting between the DSS and the county commission.
The Swain County Board of Commissioners released a statement last Wednesday calling for the board’s resignations after they failed to suspend the director of the DSS during an emergency DSS board meeting on Tuesday.
Conflict between the two boards began Feb. 22 following the launch of an SBI investigation of the DSS in response to the January death of 15-month-old Aubrey Littlejohn. The infant died of exposure and neglect while under the care of her great aunt, Ladybird Powell.
DSS Fiscal Officer Kim Hight confirmed the immediate resignations of Chairman Jim Gribble, Wally Treadway and Bob Thomas and had been provided copies of the three board members’ letters of resignation. Robert White and Vice- Chairman Frela Beck did not resign.
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.”
On Monday, Swain County commissioners voted 3 to 2 to appoint Georgianna Carson to the Department of Social Services Board. Carson’s appointment replaced one of three board members who resigned last week. The two remaining slots, to be appointed by the governor, have not been filled.
The controversy over the DSS board resignations drew a large crowd, forcing the commissioners to move the meeting from the board room to the courtroom. The courtroom was filled with DSS supporters and staff, as well as several of Aubrey Littlejohn’s family and supporters.
Once the commissioners finished the county’s regular business meeting, public comments were opened. Several people stepped forward to address the commissioners about their concerns.
“Tonight most people lost sight of what this is all about, Aubrey Littlejohn. This has split the Swain community because of politics. - Ruth McCoy
At the top of the list of speakers was resigned DSS board member Jim Gribble.
“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. Supporters of the DSS board and staff rise in applause after County Commissioner Steve Moon apologizes to the audience for what has happened over the past few weeks. Photo by Mike Kesselring “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.”
Betty Sandlin also voiced her disapproval of the commissioners handling of the incident.
“I am here to speak about your abominable press release. You handled your request for DSS board resignation in the most despicable way possible by failing to notify them of your intentions in a respectful and ethically sound way. Instead they heard it on WLOS… Please, for the sake of our community, the people you’ve so deeply wronged, salvage your reputation and fix this mess.”
The only person to speak on behalf of Aubrey Littlejohn’s family was Ruth McCoy.
“On behalf of Aubrey’s family we want to thank those who took a stand for her,” said McCoy. “And for the board members who resigned, doing the best thing you thought was right in your heart, we are truly sorry that your feelings have been hurt… I’ve worked with many of you. I respect Mr. Gribble. I worked with him for years. But, we’re here because the DSS workers didn’t do their job. None of this had to happen,” she said.
Following the meeting McCoy added, “Tonight most people lost sight of what this is all about, Aubrey Littlejohn. This has split the Swain community because of politics. As for the Cherokee community, we have to continue working together as neighbors. We are still partners in this. Swain County and the Reservation are entwined more than anytime in the past. It has taken years to get where we are. We need each other,” she concluded.
Appointees for the two remaining DSS board positions are not yet known. Nor is it known if the three board members now in place will suspend the director for the remainder of the investigation.