The state could step in to run the Swain County Department of Social Services if the top leaders are among those put on leave during a probe into an alleged cover-up.
Swain DSS falsified records relating to the abuse and neglect of a 15-month-old baby who later died, according to an investigation by the Swain County Sheriff’s Office and the State Bureau of Investigation.
The family of the child have asked those named in the probe, including the DSS director and program manager, be suspended pending the outcome of the investigation.
“I don’t think it is right for them to keep working,” said Leighann McCoy, one of the family members. “Look at all the lives they have in their hands. Their jobs are a matter of life and death.”
The Swain County commissioners have concurred, although they don’t have authority over DSS employees — that lies with a separate DSS board.
So last week, commissioners formally called on the DSS board to suspend the employees in a 4 to 1 vote at a special meeting. The lone “no” vote came from Commissioner Steve Moon, who is the uncle of DSS Director Tammy Cagle. Family of the child chastised Moon after the meeting for participating in the vote.
Commissioners emphasized that their recommendation is not a reflection of whether they think the DSS employees are guilty of wrongdoing. Commissioners said that suspending the employees would protect the integrity of the ongoing investigation.
“It is not out of animosity,” said Commissioner Chairman Phil Carson. “We are just trying to do the right thing during this case and this investigation.”
Swain County commissioners met with the DSS board in closed session for more than an hour Thursday evening prior to commissioners’ vote. The meeting could legally be held behind closed doors since the discussion centered on personnel and a criminal investigation.
The DSS board will meet seperately at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, March 8, at the DSS office to discuss commissioners’ recommendation.
Two-dozen friends and family of Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn, a 15-month-old baby who died in January, waited outside during the duration of the closed meeting to learn what commissioners would do. Relatives say they had appealed to DSS to take Aubrey away from her caregiver, and had repeatedly complained of suspected abuse and neglect. The SBI is investigating whether DSS employees engaged in a cover-up to hide potential negligence on their part.
Deloris Taylor, a friend of the family, said DSS failures allowed Aubrey’s death to happen.
“There should be a full state investigation and DSS should be held accountable. I think they should face criminal charges,” Taylor said.
Taylor said Aubrey’s case should have been given more attention.
“They shouldn’t just shuffle the paper work,” Taylor said.
Several social workers came to the meeting and expressed their dismay that their agency was under attack. They pointed out the many dedicated social workers in Swain County who put their heart and soul into what is a very tough job.
“I think our county should be supporting our social workers a lot more,” said Alissa Lambert, a child social worker at Swain DSS for three years.
Lambert said the job was so stressful that she burned out and had to find another job.
“The stuff we have to deal with on a daily basis is really difficult,” Lambert said.
Lambert asked where the news media was the rest of the year and during their many fundraisers, from selling hotdogs to a softball tournament to a chili cook-off.
“Nobody sees the positive things we do, the hundreds of families we help on a daily basis,” said Tabatha Medford, a current DSS social worker. “I apply myself in my job every day.”
So far, only one of the employees named has been put on leave — Craig Smith, a social worker with the agency since 2006 making $35,000 a year, who was directly involved in falsifying the records turned over to investigators, according to an SBI search warrant.
Smith told investigators he was acting on orders from his boss. His account of events suggested that the director and program manager knew his report was fabricated — namely that the child had been seen by a doctor when in fact she hadn’t.
But Lambert questioned Smith’s story. She said that supervisors can’t check on the accuracy of every statement in every report.
Lambert said anyone the state sends into run DSS won’t understand working in a small town or the unique culture here.