Candace Lassiter was charged with covering up the missteps and failures of the Swain Department of Social Services in the child abuse and neglect case of Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn. Despite warnings by family members that Aubrey was in danger, Swain DSS let the case slip through the cracks.
The safety net intended to rescue children from harmful neglect and abuse tragically let Aubrey down. Social workers apparently realized this in hindsight and a cover-up conspiracy was hatched, according to investigators.
“It is pretty obvious they knew they were in the wrong or they wouldn’t have been rushing around destroying files and making things up,” said Jasmine Littlejohn, Aubrey’s mother. Littlejohn had temporarily entrusted Aubrey to a great-aunt Ladybird Powell while serving jail time and in drug rehab.
When Aubrey died in Powell’s care on the floor of an unheated singlewide trailer one cold night in January 2011, she was malnourished, underdeveloped, being raised in a drug-ridden household, had never gone to a doctor for even a routine check-up, and showed various signs of abuse and neglect. The likely cause of death was hypothermia, according to later autopsy analysis.
Social workers visited the home twice but made no meaningful attempt to improve Aubrey’s subpar care or intervene in any way, according to the investigation.
“The files had to be fixed, which led to why we are here today,” Assistant District Attorney Sybil Mann said in court Monday ahead of Lassiter’s plea.
Aubrey’s extended Cherokee family was in the courtroom to hear Lassiter’s guilty plea Monday.
“Family means a lot to me,” said Rae Taylor, who has frequently come to the court hearings over the past two years in a show of solidarity. “We went through this pain and hurt together and we should stick through it together until the end.”
Several of Lassiter’s co-workers at Swain DSS came to the hearing as well. Lassiter had continued to work at Swain DSS over the past two years. Now that she has been found guilty of felony forgery, she will lose her job.
Aubrey’s caretaker Powell was charged with second-degree murder in Aubrey’s death. But the largely circumstantial evidence against Powell would have made the charges hard to prove at trial, so a plea bargain was reached for involuntary manslaughter earlier this year. She was also convicted of extortion and felony child abuse. She is serving nine years in prison.
Family members regret they didn’t take the child away from Powell themselves.
“I will have to live with that the rest of my life,” said Caron Swayney, one of Aubrey’s family members who had contacted DSS. “I should have taken her.”
But Swayney didn’t have the legal authority to intervene. Swain DSS did, and Swayney blames the agency for not taking its job more seriously in Aubrey’s case.
“Aubrey is gone and we are never going to get her back,” Swayney said.
Only one other social worker was charged in connection with the cover up, Craig Smith. Smith’s case has not yet come to court.
But Aubrey’s family members believe more were involved in the conspiracy to cover the agency’s tracks.
“It’s not just the small ones. We need the ones higher than them,” said Ruth McCoy, one of Aubrey’s other great-aunts.
Lassiter was a low-level supervisor, and Smith was a rank-and-file caseworker directly under Lassiter. There were two more layers of middle management between Lassiter and the agency director.
Lassiter said in court she would share everything she knows about what transpired within the halls of Swain DSS following Aubrey’s death. When asked whether she would be willing to testify against others should the investigation lead to more charges, she told the judge “yes.”
Lassiter was initially charged with three counts of forgery for falsifying records and three counts of obstruction of justice. She pleaded guilty only to the three counts of forgery.
The judge did not hand down a sentence for Lassiter in court this week. Her sentence — how much if any jail time she’ll have to serve — will be handed down later.
A judge will often delay a sentence if a defendant has agreed to cooperate with investigators. How severe or lenient the sentence can depend on whether they actually have any useful information, and if they cooperate as promised.
Littlejohn, Aubrey’s mother, would like to see Lassiter serve jail time but said it is worth a plea deal to find out what she knows.
“She didn’t do it by herself,” Littlejohn surmised.
Whether those at the top, and if so how high up, were part and parcel to the cover-up conspiracy is obviously something investigators hope to learn from Lassiter.
“It is the hope of the family that the truth as it relates to corruption, the roles others may have played in the destruction of evidence, if any, and those responsible from the top down, are brought to justice,” said David Wijewickrama, a Waynesville attorney representing the family. “This case has been going on for over two years and others have had ample opportunity and time to come forward, their silence and inaction are unforgiveable and a true measure of their character.”
Wijewickrama questioned whether there was widespread corruption within Swain DSS.
Swain DSS Director Tammy Cagle was fired by the DSS board in the midst of the investigation, but for unrelated reasons, including conduct. The second-in-command under Cagle, Talmidge Jones, retired. Both Cagle and Talmidge have been sued in a civil case by the family of Aubrey Littlejohn.
Uncovering the cover-up
In court Monday, Assistant District Attorney Sybil Mann described the chain of events following Aubrey’s death. The case against Swain DSS was kickstarted in part thanks to growing suspicions of Swain County Detective Carolyn Posey that something was amiss.
When Aubrey was brought to the emergency room at Cherokee Indian Hospital in the middle of the night in January 2011, already dead and with a drastically low core body temperature, her unexplained death was deemed suspicious. Posey set out to investigate, and one of her first stops was to request case files from DSS. But she quickly hit a brick wall.
The agency refused to turn over basic records on Aubrey’s case for two weeks despite Posey’s hounding. When a few records materialized, Posey noticed a red flag.
Craig Smith, the social worker assigned to Aubrey’s case, had visited the trailer where she lived after a concerned family member called in a complaint of suspected abuse. Smith found Aubrey had been injured and told her caregiver, Ladybird Powell, to take her to the doctor.
In his case report, Smith claimed that he made a follow-up phone call to Dr. Marie Toedt to confirm that she had seen Aubrey and was told Aubrey was OK.
“Detective Posey is also a nurse and, being familiar with privacy laws, thought that was suspicious and contacted Dr. Toedt herself,” Mann recounted. “Dr. Toedt told Detective Posey that Aubrey had never been seen by her, never been seen by Cherokee hospital, and that she had never talked to Craig Smith.”
The State Bureau of Investigation was called in to handle the investigation, which led to a lockdown of Swain DSS and seizure of records. Meanwhile, tribal leaders with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians were so shocked and outraged over the case that the tribe hired a private investigator to aid in the investigation as well.
The SBI investigation revealed three documents that had been forged or doctored by Lassiter and Smith.
• A Safety Assessment form and case notes were retroactively fabricated claiming that DSS workers found Aubrey to be “conditionally safe” and that the caregiver Ladybird Powell had sought medical care for Aubrey, when in fact no medical care had been sought and the home environment had not been deemed safe.
• Powell’s signature was forged on a release of information form.
• A summary case report was retroactively fabricated claiming that Aubrey’s case was properly reviewed and had been closed out, when in fact it had not.
Wijewickrama thanked the investigators, the tribe and the prosecutors for their diligence in bringing justice, but said the criminal investigation has not yet reached a conclusion.
“The family, the EBCI and the team of attorneys on this case will never quit, they will never stop searching and will never rest until all of the truth is known and all those responsible held accountable,” Wijewickrama said.