Swain County social workers and supervisors named in a State Bureau of Investigation probe are no longer welcome to work child welfare cases on tribal land.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians asked the Swain County Department of Social Services last week to send other workers instead when dealing with cases on the Qualla Boundary.
Swain DSS is under investigation for an alleged cover-up following the death of a Cherokee baby. Relatives had repeatedly warned DSS of suspected abuse and neglect by the baby’s caretaker, but DSS failed to take action and later doctored records to hide any negligence on their part, according to the law enforcement investigation.
An SBI search warrant named five employees, including the DSS Director Tammy Cagle and Program Manager T.L. Jones. Despite public demands that those employees be put on leave with pay pending the outcome of the investigation, only one has been suspended.
The rest remain in their jobs, which include duties on the reservation — from caseworkers investigating alleged cases of abuse to Cagle attending child welfare committee meetings with tribal officials. That has created a source of tension in Cherokee.
“I think while we are in this investigative period we should ask these guys to step aside in their responsibilities until we can figure things out,” said Principal Chief Michell Hicks. “This is a high profile issue and in light of everything that has occurred, I think it is in the best interest of all related parties.”
The request came from the chief’s office and was run past the Division of Health and Human Services in Raleigh. The state umbrella agency claimed it didn’t have jurisdiction over the job duties and case assignments of Swain County social workers.
“Any decision regarding this request would be made by Swain County DSS management,” according to Lori Walston, a spokesperson for the state agency.
Swain DSS Attorney Justin Greene, who has served as a de facto spokesperson for the agency during the tragedy, said Swain DSS would honor the tribe’s request. The social workers named will no longer work on the reservation in any capacity, even testifying in tribal court in ongoing cases they were assigned to.
“Swain County DSS employees not involved in the investigation will replace those five DSS employees in all matters occurring on the Qualla Boundary so that the delivery of social services to the enrolled members of the Tribe continues unimpeded,” according to a statement by Annette Tarnawsky, the tribe’s Attorney General.
Swain County DSS has an agreement with the tribe to perform child welfare services on the reservation. Swain DSS is reimbursed for all the services it provides on the reservation.
Over half its total child welfare caseload — and therefore half the budget — is tied to cases involving enrolled members, according to DSS reports.
Cherokee is pursuing the creation of its own child welfare team, which would handle cases involving enrolled members rather than using on Swain County DSS, according to discussions at a tribal council meeting this month. Swain DSS stands to lose considerable funding if such a plan goes through.
Official suspension may be coming soon
Relatives of Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn have been calling for the suspension of the social workers for four weeks, as have the majority of Swain County commissioners. Commissioners said their request has nothing to do with whether all employees named are guilty of wrongdoing, but is merely a matter of protocol to protect the integrity of the investigation.
But the DSS board, which holds the final say, reached an impasse on whether to suspend the employees. Commissioners were perturbed the DSS board failed to reach a decision and called for the board to resign. Three of the five indeed resigned, but commissioners then found themselves on the receiving end of public backlash from friends and family of the DSS board.
Two members remaining on the DSS board are Frela Beck, an enrolled member of the tribe, and County Commissioner Robert White.
Of the three vacant positions, one seat gets appointed by the county and two by the state Division of Health and Human Services.
County commissioners last week appointed Georganna Carson to the county’s vacant seat.
The state this week made its two appointments: Tom Decker, a teacher at Swain County’s alternative school, and Sarah Wachacha, a tribal member who works in administration at the Cherokee Indian Hospital.
A meeting of the newly constituted DSS board will be at 5:30 p.m. Monday, March 28, at the Swain DSS office. The board will presumably take up the issue of whether to suspend the employees in question until the investigation is concluded.
While the new board members will have to get up to speed on DSS policy, Decker said he is looking forward to the challenge and will not be distracted by the media attention surrounding the controversy.
“Once the new board sits down I am sure we will be able to work together well to do whatever needs to be done,” said Decker, who moved here 10 years ago. “I volunteered because I care about the people of Swain County and especially the children.”