Relatives of a Cherokee child who died in January are publicly calling for the suspension of the Swain County Department of Social Services’ director and program manager, as well as other employees named in a State Bureau of Investigation probe into an alleged cover-up at the agency.
Nearly two-dozen family members of Aubrey Kina Marie Littlejohn came to the Swain County Commissioners meeting Monday (Feb. 28) to make their case. Speakers told commissioners that public confidence in DSS has been severely shaken. They said suspending those in charge, including Director Tammy Cagle and Program Manager T.L. Jones, will help repair the agency’s credibility in the community.
“People do feel a little tense not knowing what is going to happen with these same people still sitting in the positions that they are in,” said Ruth McCoy, a great aunt to Aubrey.
Though commissioners have no authority to suspend DSS employees directly, they could implore the DSS board to take action.
Three of the five Swain County commissioners openly agreed to do so, and a fourth seemed to indicate possible support as well.
Only Commissioner Steve Moon, who is the uncle of DSS Director Tammy Cagle, said he disagreed with suspending the employees. Moon argued with McCoy, who was speaking on behalf of the family, who are members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
Several DSS employees attended the commissioners’ meeting, including Cagle and Jones. The cramped quarters — only two tightly packed rows of folding chairs — created standing room only.
DSS officials seemed to know that questions regarding their employment would be broached. DSS Attorney Justin Greene addressed commissioners at the outset of the meeting, preemptively putting them on notice that the authority to make personnel decisions rests “exclusively” with the DSS board of directors and not the county commissioners.
Commissioner David Monteith was the first to weigh in after McCoy sat down.
“I myself would like to suggest to the commissioner board that these other people who have been allocated in this be dismissed with pay until charges are either brought against or cleared. I think it would be better for the whole county if this would happen,” Monteith said.
Monteith suggested the commissioners write a letter to the DSS board with a recommendation to that effect.
A DSS worker who came to the meeting offered a rebuttal from the audience.
“Excuse me, can I ask something?” she said. “How will the agency run?”
Monteith replied that replacement staff could be sent in from the state level. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, the umbrella agency over county DSS units, has offered to provide support and resources should Swain County need help, Monteith said.
DSS Board Chairman Jim Gribble countered that their board didn’t have the authority to meddle in personnel when it comes to rank-and-file employees.
“The only position the board can appoint is the director. We could appoint a temporary director,” Gribble said.
“I think that would be a start,” McCoy answered.
“Close down the DSS? Is that a start?” Moon asked.
McCoy said the state would send personnel to help run the agency if needed.
“It won’t bring Aubrey back,” McCoy said. “But you are going to see there are going to be more people come forward.”
“No, it won’t bring her back,” Moon said.
It soon became clear Moon was in the minority, however.
Commissioner Chairman Phillip Carson said he supported sending a letter to the DSS board calling for the suspension of employees involved in the SBI investigation.
“In my opinion that would be the fair thing to do until the investigation is over with,” Carson said.
Commissioner Donnie Dixon agreed.
Gribble pointed out that the DSS board won’t meet until the end of March.
“Would they consider a special session?” asked Commissioner Robert White.
Carson turned to Gribble and reiterated the question.
“Would you have a special session?” Carson asked.
Gribble pointed out the DSS board has already made a unanimous decision on how to proceed, and for now that means waiting on the outcome of the investigation before making any personnel changes.
“We felt like the ongoing investigation would yield more evidence on personnel matters than we could obtain by having our own personnel investigation, so we chose not to do a personnel investigation,” Gribble said.
He suggested the commissioners and DSS board meet to talk about the issue behind closed doors.
McCoy said if that happens, Moon should abstain from the discussion and a vote on the matter since DSS Director Tammy Cagle is his niece.
That’s when yet another DSS employee spoke from the audience.
“It is my understanding that our director is not directly involved in the investigation,” the DSS worker said in defense of Cagle. “You would suspend that person, who gives the whole agency direction?”
Carson said he was not passing judgment on guilt or innocence, but was trying to protect the integrity of the investigation.
“It needs to be investigated with no complications,” Carson said. “There is a procedure to investigations and sometimes it is just better to set everyone involved aside.”
Monteith asked whether any DSS employee has been suspended so far. Several DSS workers who came to the meeting began nodding and saying “yes,” but DSS Attorney Justin Greene jumped up and said they could not comment on an employee’s personnel status. However, the employment status, including a suspension, of a state or county employee is in fact public record under the N.C. Public Records Law, according to N.C. Press Association Attorney Amanda Martin.
Several sources who did not want to be identified have told The Smoky Mountain News that Craig Smith, the case worker assigned to Aubrey’s case, has been suspended. However, Smith claimed to investigators he was acting on orders when he fabricated DSS records (see related article.)
Citizens ask for action against DSS
DSS Director Tammy Cagle and Program Manager T.L. Jones have not spoken to reporters since the investigation became public. Cagle did read a brief written statement at the commission meeting Monday.
“I want to ensure the citizens of Swain County that the staff of Swain County Social Services has been faithful and diligent in our duties to protect children and we will continue to do so,” Cagle said.
Last week, Greene made a similar statement to media.
“We hope this doesn’t dissuade the public from seeking services or making reports to protect the adults and children of this county,” said Greene.
But Angie Rasulo of Swain County said the allegations don’t exactly inspire confidence in the public.
“How are the people going to feel safe?” Rasulo asked.
Rasulo had an appointment at DSS the day it was raided by the SBI. She was told to come back another day. Rasulo shared what she said was a common sentiment in Swain County, that DSS is not responsive to the community. She hopes the agency sees a clean sweep.
“It’s terrible that a girl had to die to make a change,” Rasulo said. “I hope they are held accountable. They need to clean house.”
Gribble said Swain DSS has asked the state to review all pending child protective services cases to make sure they are being handled properly.
Aubrey Littlejohn’s family members weren’t convinced, however.
“How many other families are going to want to go to DSS? People will think ‘Why should we bother because they aren’t going to do anything,’” Leighann McCoy said. “How can you let them get away with this?”