Board ‘disappointed’ with actions of DSS
Swain County Commissioners released a statement on Wednesday condemning the inaction of the Swain County Department of Social Services Board and requesting that the members resign their posts.
The strongly worded statement pits the two county offices against one another following an emergency DSS board meeting Tuesday. DSS board members failed to take action on a recommendation by commissioners to suspend DSS employees being investigated in the January death of 16-month-old Aubrey Littlejohn.
The statement reads as follows:
“The Swain County Board of Commissioners is extremely disappointed with the actions of the Department of Social Services board. During the last commissioner’s meeting the board asked the DSS board to temporarily suspend employees that had been named in the investigation. This is a procedure that is followed in most counties in North Carolina. It has never been the intention of the board of commissioners to accuse anyone of wrong-doing, but suspending the employees Chef’s Challenge would help authorities with the State conduct an unbiased investigation and have more flexibility to do their job.
“These suspensions would help DSS regain the trust of the community. The commissioners feel that the DSS board members are not working for the citizens of Swain County. The DSS board did not vote on this issue at their Tuesday night meeting. The board of commissioners feel that the needs of the children should have more priority than the needs of the director or employees.
“Therefore, the commissioners urge all the current DSS board members to immediately resign, so that these positions can be filled with people who are not afraid to put the best interests of children and families of Swain County first at all times.
Joint Board Meetings
Following an emergency meeting between the DSS Board and the Commissionersn on Thursday, March 3, 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 SBI investigation into alleged wrongdoing by the DSS.
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 or private organizations is a common practice across the country, they said.
The Swain County Administration lobby was packed with DSS 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 her death, Jan. 10, while in the care of her great-aunt Ladybird Powell.
Gathered on opposite sides of the lobby, the atmosphere was 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 under way. 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.
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.
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 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,” said McCoy.
DSS Board takes no action
But on Tuesday, March 8, the Swain County Department of Social Services Board came out of a three hour closed session to announce, “After careful and lengthy consideration the board was unable to reach a consensus on the Swain County commissioners’ recommendation ...” that they suspend the director of the DSS and four other employees.
The board’s announcement during their emergency meeting Tuesday was a surprise to the child’s supporters and to caseworker Craig Smith’s family.
The board left DSS counsel Justin Greene to answer questions from the public and the media. The first question came from McCoy asking, “What is the next step?”
The response from Greene was to say that a letter needs to be sent to the board chairman requesting to be put on the agenda of the board’s next regular meeting on March 28. The letter should include the subject to be discussed. The board would then send a return letter with the date and time to appear before the board.
“I’m very disappointed you didn’t suspend the employees until it’s over. What you have done here means what happened to Aubrey Littlejohn could happen again,” said McCoy.
According to Greene, the board weighed very carefully the evidence laid before them. Their decision was not arrived at lightly. The board deliberated for three hours, at the end of which they decided to call in Health and Human Services representatives from the state to investigate the department’s case files to see if there are any irregularities. This is being done in the hopes that when the HHS investigators come in they will be able to provide the board with the information they need to make an appropriate decision, said Greene.
The board felt that bringing in outside sources would be in the best interest of the community and to maintain the credibility of the agency, he added.
Comments from the public stated that they weren’t asking for the suspensions to be made asa form of punishment, but to set the employees aside while the investigation is conducted. “What more do you need? How can there be enough evidence to suspend one person but not enough to suspend the rest?,” asked one of them.
No one has been suspended at this point. One employee has been put on investigative status, said Greene, referring to caseworker Smith.
“What people need to know is that the employees of the department are good hard working people that have a job that is incredibly difficult,” added Greene. “They are prohibited by law from discussing the case. That’s important for the public to know.”
“We are right back to square one. They are going to keep their jobs and things are going to continue the same way. People are going to see that Native Americans aren’t treated the same way. Nothing’s changed,” said McCoy. “I hope every night they see Aubrey Littlejohn’s face.”
No information was given as to when the HHS investigation would begin.