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 investigation into alleged wrongdoing by the DSS, Thursday (Mar. 3), following an emergency meeting between the DSS Board and the Commissioners.
Commissioners pointed out they took this action for the sake of the program and that it is not about the guilt or innocence of the employees. By calling for the suspension it allows the investigation to go forward and helps to clear the air while assuring the public that DSS is able to provide needed services. Suspending employees during an investigation of government agencies and private organizations is a common practice across the country, they said.
The Swain County Administration lobby had been packed with Department of Social Services employees and members of the Cherokee community while the joint meeting of the Swain County Commissioners and the Department of Social Services board was in closed session. The emergency meeting was called to discuss the possible suspension of DSS workers allegedly involved in a cover up of the mishandling of 15 month old Aubrey Littlejohn’s case before here death, Jan. 10, while in the care of her great Aunt Ladybird Powell.
Gathered on opposite sides of the lobby, the atmosphere had been pensive, but calm, as the two groups patiently waited for the emergency meeting to end. DSS employees were under instructions from legal counsel not to discuss the case while the investigation is still underway. Several DSS staff members expressed frustration over what was happening and wanted their concerns for the child’s family to be known, but could offer no information or statements about the case.
Alissa Lambert, though, was able to speak in defense of the DSS employees. A case worker no longer working at DSS, recently started a new job and was under no restraints to share her thoughts.
“I just don’t feel DSS did anything neglectful or wrong. Our county should be supporting the social workers a lot more instead of commissioners proposing to suspend them on the basis of no truth,” she said, referring to the investigation that hasn’t been completed or results made public.
Lambert reportedly worked indirectly on Aubrey’s case. Supporters of Littlejohn stated that some of their complaints about Ladybird had been filed with Lambert months before the baby’s death.
Friends and family were free to express their concerns about the case.
“I am hoping that the DSS board will take the commissioners’ recommendation,” said Ruth McCoy, a great aunt of Aubrey Littlejohn and family spokesperson, “and remove Tammy Cagle from her position as DSS Director in support of the child and any other child that may be in the system at this time.” The goal of Aubrey’s family is to have the director removed and then work down through the ranks of everyone involved.
“Ultimately she’s the boss. She should have pulled everything in. According to state law Cagle should have had a media conference and said ‘We’ve had a death of a child involved in DSS.’ That still hasn’t happened yet. DSS hasn’t come out to say anything,” she said.
Another of Aubrey’s great aunts, Karen Swayney, commented “I think they should make some changes. I just don’t know what to think about it all. It’s still hard to believe.”
Dolores Taylor and Linda Montelongo, two Cherokee women not related to Aubrey, had come to support the family. Montelongo, holding a smoking sage smudge, and Taylor, holding a handdrum, were there to say prayers for the family.
Taylor, troubled by the tragedy of Aubrey’s death said, “It doesn’t seem like people are putting there heart in their work and extending themselves. It shouldn’t be about the pay or how much work it takes. It should be about the children. They are the ones suffering from this,” Dolores said.
Nearly an hour passed before the public was invited back into the boardroom. When everyone had returned, County Commission Chairman Phil Carson called the meeting back into open session.
The end result of several motions considered during the closed session was a motion made by Commissioner Donnie Dixon. Reading the motion to the public, Dixon said, “I move that we recommend to the DSS board to put the employees named in the investigation on administrative leave with pay until after the investigation has been completed.”
The motion was seconded by Commissioner and DSS board member Robert White. The motion was carried 4 to 1 with Commissioner Steve Moon casting the opposing vote.
Following the vote, DSS legal counsel Justin Greene announced that the DSS board will call an emergency meeting within the next week to further discuss the recommendations of the county commissioners and come up with some final resolutions.
“We will need to post some information regarding the public nature of the meeting and the Vice-Chair of our board (Frela Beck) is out of the state right now and will be returning early in the week. We are reluctant to do anything until we have a full compliment of the board available before we make any decisions,” Greene stated.
The five member Swain County DSS board 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. Frela Beck is the fifth member appointed by the rest of the board.
The DSS board hopes that this process hasn’t dissuaded the public from using DSS services. They want the public to know that they are still able to come in to get the services they need and “to make reports where the public feels they are warranted,” said Greene on behalf of the DSS board.
Following the meeting, an unnamed, concerned resident asked the public not to forget that, “though court papers describe a shocking situation at DSS, the investigation is not complete, nothing has been made public, no charges have been made and there is no certainty as to what the facts are at this point. And until the results of the autopsy are released, the cause of Aubrey’s death has not been determined.”
“In the best interest of both communities, let’s be patient until the authorities come forward with their findings,” the statement concludes.
Waiting for the closed session to end was nerve wracking for Ruth McCoy but she was relieved by the commissioner’s decision. “This is good news. I’m glad that the commissioners made the recommendation that all the people involved be suspended. I hope the DSS board takes the recommendation of the commissioners,” Ruth said.
Friends and family of Aubrey Littlejohn are passionate about the suspension of the employees because “She was my great niece, she’s our family,” Ruth said. “We had to stand up for her because she can’t stand up and fight for herself. Her mother, who’s incarcerated, can’t fight for her. It’s up to the family to help.” She concluded by thanking the commissioners for their support of Aubrey’s family.
The emergency meeting of the DSS board is tentatively scheduled for Tuesday, Mar. 8 at 6:00 pm in the DSS office building.