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Swain County social workers in charge of protecting children are paid less and handle more cases than those elsewhere in the state and region, factors that likely contribute to a higher-than-average turnover.

Swain’s Department of Social Services has been plagued by the loss of child welfare workers. It was chronically short staffed for much of last year — seven child welfare workers left over a nine-month period.

Each time one quit, the ones who remained had to pick up the pieces. Their work load increased. Cases were handed off midstream. The number of new hires in the ranks — lacking any formal training or education in the field — only made matters worse.

It was in this climate that the case of Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn slipped through the cracks. Despite repeated warnings from relatives that baby Aubrey was being mistreated and neglected, social workers failed to intervene.

When Social Worker Craig Smith finally paid Aubrey’s caregiver a visit last September, the caregiver chalked up bruises on the baby to a fall down the stairs.

Smith told her to take the baby in for a physical exam. But the doctor’s exam never happened. Smith either forgot, or was too busy to follow up. And four months later, Aubrey died alone on a mattress on the floor in the back room of a single-wide trailer in a case that has sparked far-reaching outrage and sympathy.

Smith has since admitted falsifying records to hide potential negligence and failures by the agency, according to law enforcement documents. He claims the orders to do so came from his superiors, and that knowledge of the cover-up went all the way to the top.

Swain DSS is under investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation. Its director has been fired and the majority of its board members replaced.

On the heels of the scandal, the state Department of Health and Human Services launched its own competency review of Swain DSS in March. The state audited a random sample of 57 child welfare cases to determine if Swain DSS was properly protecting children.

The state’s evaluation raised a red flag over the “significant turnover” in the past year.

“Turnover does have an adverse effect on the functioning of the agency. Turnover results in social workers being stretched thin to cover the workload of vacant positions,” according to the state review.

Furthermore, supervisors in charge of training new hires were not fully qualified to be in management roles, according to the report.

Smith, ironically, was not one of the many new hires at Swain DSS. He had been with the agency for four years.

But he was not untouched by the ripple effect of high turnover each time someone around him left.

“That person’s workload gets distributed among the survivors,” said Evelyn Williams, a clinical associate professor at the UNC School of Social Work.

Even once a replacement is found, the more experienced social workers often continue to shoulder a disproportionate case load, including the more difficult or complex cases — all the while trying to help the new workers learn the ropes.

The loss of a coworker can be more depressing than the sheer prospect of more work. Child welfare workers in a small agency can be tight knit and get depressed when they lose one of their own.

“It is really hard work to do. It is challenging work to do. It is emotional work to do,” Williams said. “Your coworkers become vital to your support system.”


Off the charts

Swain County’s extreme turn-over last year among child welfare workers is more than twice the average turnover in the state.

While worse off than other counties, Swain is hardly alone in its struggle. Statewide, 50 percent of child welfare workers quit within two years. Only 25 percent stick with it longer than five.

“It is not easy to keep and recruit qualified social workers,” said Bob Cochran, director of Jackson County DSS. “It is not an easy job. It can be very stressful.”

Swain DSS has been fighting abnormally high turnover for years.

The caseload carried by Swain’s child welfare workers, even when fully staffed, is higher than other counties.

But its lower salaries are most often blamed as the culprit, as the prospect of better pay in surrounding counties lured staff away.

“The agency has historically provided training to new staff who then move on to better paying jobs,” Swain DSS leaders asserted in 2009 in a “self-assessment” included in the state’s performance review that same year.

It’s a point few could argue.

“Poor counties have difficulty holding good workers,” agreed Ira Dove, director of Haywood County DSS.

But salary is not everything. Social workers who are fulfilled in their jobs are more likely to stick with it.

And that’s where smaller DSS agencies in rural counties should have an advantage.

“Smaller counties have this wonderful work environment to offer,” said Evelyn Williams, a clinical associate professor at the UNC School of Social Work. “The director probably knows your name, there are collegial relationships that are very close and supportive. The whole pace and climate is often different in a positive way that may offset to some extent the lower salaries.”

In rural counties, case workers have a stronger sense of community, which can also make the job more rewarding, according to Patrick Betancourt, Policy Program Administrator at the N.C. Division of Social Services.

“Even though it is a non-tangible thing, it does motivate the worker to strive for the best practices they possibly can,” Betancourt said.

It can not only make up for lower salaries, but larger case loads.

“They can tolerate the heavy work load when they feel like they are making a difference,” Williams said.

However, there is a tipping point.

“The higher the work load, the less able they are to be engaged in a way that might make a difference,” Williams said. And likewise, “if the salary is really low and people don’t feel like it is a fair salary, then it is a major problem that has to be solved before anything else kicks in.”


Why stretched so thin?

Swain County child welfare workers routinely work more cases than they should under state standards.

But how many social workers to hire — along with how much to pay them — is up to each county. The state and federal governments pitch in some money to cover social workers’ salaries, but counties pick up most of the tab and set their own salaries  and staffing levels.

The state does, however, dictate a reasonable caseload — one that Swain routinely exceeded. Child welfare workers should have no more than 10 open cases at a time, according to state statute. Some Swain child welfare workers had nearly double that at times.

The state does not check for compliance to determine whether county DSS agencies are exceeding the maximum caseload for child welfare workers.

“Quite honestly, I believe that is a local responsibility,” said Sherry Bradsher, the state director of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Bradsher said it’s the job of the county DSS director “to make sure their agency is staffed appropriately.”

The state periodically does a performance review of each county DSS, about every three years or so. But caseload is not an area the state makes a habit of inspecting or asking about.

Bradsher said the state does keep monthly data on the number of child welfare cases in each county, and could feasibly calculate the caseload. But no one at the state level does so as a matter of course.

Besides, there are nuances behind the numbers.

“Just seeing we have 25 open cases doesn’t tell me a lot. How many are going to close in the next day or so? How many children are in each of those cases? How high risk are they?” Bradsher said. “It may be OK to be three or four cases over. I am not sure it is OK to have twice as many cases.”

If Bradsher learned that a county was routinely and egregiously exceeding the acceptable caseload, and she believed children’s safety was at risk as a result, it could trigger some heavy-handed intervention.

The state theoretically can seize control of child welfare functions, hire the necessary number of workers, and then bill the county for it, Bradsher said.

“We didn’t want situations where workers had too many cases,” Bradsher said of the state provision allowing for a take over. “Fortunately, we have never had to do that. Counties are very conscientious about the needs of child welfare. I think what you will find as far as positions across our state is most counties are appropriately staffed.”

However, an issue can arise when workers quit, Bradsher said.

“The problem comes in with vacancies. You have high turn over quite honestly, particularly in child welfare,” Bradsher said.

As the cases pile up, child welfare workers might be tempted to clear old cases from their books  to make room for new ones. But it is unlikely child welfare workers would lower the bar to close cases more quickly and stay within the maximum caseload, according to Betancourt.

“I wouldn’t say there is pressure to let cases slide,” Betancourt said. “But you are constantly evaluating cases for safety and risk. As you start getting nearer your maximum you look at is there continued risk? You start evaluating more closely.”

Social workers could theoretically spend years working with a family.

“That’s part of what drives you to be a social worker. Can you make this family the best it can possibly be?” Betancourt said.

But at some point the social worker has to decide the improvement in the child’s home environment is adequate.

“That is constantly the balancing game that social workers have to play,” Betancourt said.


Oversight in the ranks

In addition to case load, the state also sets standards for supervisor-to-staff ratio: one supervisor for every five child welfare case workers.

Many counties exceed the supervisor to staff ratio by one or two workers, but won’t bite the bullet and hire that additional supervisor until they hit three or four over.

With a staff of experienced child welfare workers, pushing the ratio may be fine. When there are lots of new hires in ranks as there were in Swain, the ratio of one-to-five may not be enough.

Finding experienced, qualified supervisors is just as challenging as finding rank-and-file child welfare workers.

Often, those who excel in their job are promoted to supervisor, Betancourt said. But a good case worker doesn’t automatically make a good supervisor.

Promoting supervisors from within without giving them proper management training was a problem at Swain DSS, according to the state’s competency review of the agency in March.

Child welfare supervisors did not provide adequate direction, coaching and oversight for the rank-and-file child welfare workers, particularly given their lack of training and the large number of new hires.

Tammy Cagle, the former DSS director, had herself risen in the ranks. She started out as an entry level social worker in 1998 and within seven years had worked her way up to director. Cagle made $66,000 a year, on the very low end of DSS directors. The DSS director in Haywood makes $93,000 and in Jackson he makes $106,000.

Cagle had not asked the county to add additional child welfare positions for at least two years, according to the agency.

However, the new interim director, Jerry Smith, told county leaders he needed an additional child welfare supervisor as soon as possible.

“He needs the staff,” County Manager Kevin King told commissioners last week.

Swain County commissioners granted Smith’s request.

Quality supervisors, and enough of them, helps with the challenge of hiring and keeping good social workers, according to experts in the field.

“I think the supervisor to worker ratio is real key,” said Bob Cochran, the director of Jackson County DSS. “That really makes the difference to help people go over cases and debrief and train, especially new workers. They need a lot of face time and support and encouragement. That is real critical.”

Betancourt agreed.

“Having a supervisor that can help in making tough decisions and provide good clinical feedback is important,” Betancourt said.

Swain DSS was suffering from low morale among workers last year, according to the minutes of DSS board meetings.

In January 2010, board minutes referenced low morale among workers and team-building efforts to improve it. In December, one board member noted an improvement in morale, at least judging by the good time staff had at the agency’s annual Christmas luncheon, according to the minutes of the meeting.


Proof is in the training

The challenge developing good child welfare workers — both recruiting and retaining them — is the on-going subject of research by Williams at the UNC School of Social Work, considered one of the best in the field.

Williams held a round-table focus group with DSS directors from several WNC counties in Sylva this winter.

All said they suffered from a limited pool of qualified applicants.

“Directors have what is called a grow-your-own strategy in many places and that makes sense. People who already live in the community, have a commitment to the community and understand the community,” Williams said.

The problem, however, is that they lack training or education in child welfare or social work.

The job can be a “rude awakening” for those who have no training in the field, Cochran said. They won’t last long as a result.

The shortage of child welfare workers, particularly those trained in the field, spawned a state incentive program offering college scholarships to students willing to major in social work and put in requisite time on the job after graduation.

Similar to the state’s Teaching Fellows concept, the Child Welfare Education Collaborative offers $6,000 a year for undergraduates majoring in the field. In exchange, they must put in one year on the job for every year of financial assistance.

Western Carolina University was among the first universities to participate when it was started four years ago.

Cochran said it has helped with hiring prospects locally.

“For people who have majored in child welfare or social work, there is a cognitive resonance in what their dreams and aspirations are and what they are doing,” Cochran said. “They are really fulfilled and living their dream and tend to stay longer.”

But for the vast majority who don’t have the degree, on-the-job training becomes a make-or-break factor, Cochran said. It’s best to ease them in to the job, allowing them to shadow other workers at first, then making sure their first solo cases are easier ones.

“That is really key to longevity: the feeling of mastery early on. If they get overwhelmed early, you can bet they won’t be around long,” Cochran said.

Of course, it’s easier said than done when the rest of the staff is over-worked, and eager to have the new hire take on a full load as quickly as possible to relieve the burden.

“If you are low staffed and have had some turnover everyone else is carrying the load and suffering a bit,” Cochran said. While it’s tempting to have them hit the ground running, Cochran refrains in favor of what he considers a “long-term investment” that starts with good training.

The qualifications to be a child welfare worker aren’t particularly tough. It takes a four-year degree in a related field — and what qualifies as a related field is open to interpretation. A basic liberal-arts English degree counts as a related field as far as many counties are concerned. If counties are particularly desperate for workers, the list of “related” fields could be quite long.

“Like many other small counties, Swain County often has to under fill social work positions with persons who demonstrate some abilities, but do not necessarily have the experience and skill level commensurate with the requirements of the position,” according to the state’s competency review of the agency in the wake of the scandal.

All new hires must attend 72 hours of classroom training. The crash course is put on several times a year at a training site in Asheville where all western counties send their new hires.

After that, they are technically certified to start working cases. The training can’t come close to preparing child welfare workers from the things they will witness: children in drug infested homes, children being sexually abused by their own fathers, children going hungry.

“You can see quite a bit of burn out in a job like this,” said Betancourt.


Slipped through the cracks

Given the challenges recruiting and retaining child welfare workers, the lack of training for new hires, high caseloads in the face of turn over and generally stressful work, its not hard to understand how cases can fall through the cracks. But the consequences can clearly be tragic.

Smith was not the only social worker that witnessed Aubrey in a harmful environment.

In November of last year, social workers took an older child out of the same trailer where Aubrey lived, citing drug and alcohol use. Aubrey was left behind, however, despite social workers also witnessing extremely cold conditions in the trailer.

An autopsy report ruled hypothermia as a possible cause of death.

That same month, a third social worker made a yet another visit to the trailer, acting on yet another tip of abuse. Aubrey’s caregiver signed a statement promising not to physically punish Aubrey, who was only 13-months-old at the time. The autopsy report cited a previously broken arm and numerous recent bruises on her head.

Despite policies and procedures that are supposed to ensure the safety of children, there is not adequate oversight by the state when something goes wrong, said David Wijewickrama, a Waynesville attorney representing Aubrey’s family.

“The reason children contiunue to die in the state of North Carolina is because the state does not have on-site review that scrutinizes the actions of social workers and holds them personally accountable when it results in serious bodily injury of the death of a child,” Wijewickrama said.


Protecting children: by the numbers

Haywood DSS

Number of cases last year    1056

Child welfare supervisors    3.5

Child welfare workers    18

Starting salary    $37,500

Turn-over    4 last year; on par with previous years

Jackson DSS

Number of cases last year    666

Child welfare supervisors    2

Child welfare workers    11

Starting salary    $39,800

Turn-over    4 last year; higher than average

Swain DSS

Number of cases last year    528

Child welfare supervisors    2; soon to be 3

Child welfare workers    8

Starting salary    $33,000

Turn-over    7 last year

The former head of Swain County’s Department of Social Services won’t be getting her job back, members of the county’s DSS board decided in a called meeting on Monday.

The board had dismissed Cagle following a hearing last month, but she launched an appeal attempting to be reinstalled in the position.

The appeal triggered a second hearing before the board, where Cagle was allowed to plead her case again in closed session.

Now that the board has again voted to uphold her dismissal, Cagle has one final recourse, to appeal to the N.C. Office of State Personnel.

She was dismissed in the wake of a scandal sparked by the death of 15-month-old Aubrey Littlejohn who died in January. The State Bureau of Investigation is investigating an alleged cover-up at the agency. A social worker claimed he had been directed by superiors to falsify records following the baby’s death.

However, Cagle was fired for reasons unrelated to that case. Reasons cited were insubordination and “conduct unbecoming of a state employee.”

Interim Director Jerry Smith, who came to the job from Brevard, will stay until a permanent replacement is found.

Tammy Cagle, once the leader of the Swain County Department of Social Services, has been given the ax by the department’s board of directors.

Cagle, however, is fighting the decision. She’s appealed to the board, who handed down the decision in a closed hearing last week.

The five-member board let the former director go for charges of insubordination and conduct unbecoming to a state employee, but no further details were given in the statement released last week.

Swain DSS has been embroiled in controversy since the State Bureau of Investigation raided the agency and seized its computers in February as part of an ongoing probe into an alleged cover-up following the death of a 15-month-old Cherokee baby, Aubrey Littlejohn.

The child’s family members repeatedly warned Swain DSS of abuse and neglect, but social workers failed to remove the baby from its caretaker or adequately investigate the claims. After Aubrey’s death, social worker Craig Smith, falsified records to hide the negligence. Though he claims the cover-up was at the insistence of his superiors, Cagle denied the claim at a DSS board meeting earlier this month.

“Have I led or participated in any cover-up or falsification of records with this agency? No, absolutely not,” Cagle said.

Cagle was suspended with pay after the department launched its own investigation into the incident.

Her dismissal, however, is for reasons unrelated to Aubrey’s death and the furor surrounding the cover-up.

Smith has since resigned.

Board members wouldn’t comment on the decision, but it’s the culmination of a controversy that filled three of the five DSS board seats with new members.

Two-thirds of the former board resigned in protest when county commissioners called publicly for the suspension of Cagle during the probe into Aubrey’s death and the alleged cover-up at the agency.

Commissioners were mostly mum on this latest decision, though.

“It was entirely their [the DSS board’s] decision what happened,” said Commissioner Donnie Dixon. “We just wanted an investigation.”

Commissioner Robert White, who also chairs the DSS board, referred questions to the department’s attorney, Justin Greene, and other commissioners didn’t return calls or offered no comment.

Ruth McCoy, Aubrey’s aunt, said she and her family were pleased with the decision, but wished Cagle no ill.

“It’s not about the person, it’s about the position. The person in that position has to be in control of the people under them,” said McCoy. “We’re just glad that the board made the decision that they did with the director and hopefully the new director will come in and build good relationships with the tribe and the surrounding communities, so people have faith again in the DSS.”

Cagle has spent the last 13 years of her career with social services in Swain County, the last six as the director.

She started in 1998 as an entry-level social worker, moving up the ranks to supervisor, program director and, in 2005, director.

Since her suspension, the department has brought in Jerry Smith, a social work veteran from Brevard, as an interim director with extensive experience and degrees in the field.

In waiting for the investigation to wrap up, the county has been on the hook for both Cagle’s $66,000 salary and the cost to have Smith temporarily at the wheel.

Now that Cagle has lodged her appeal, the board will schedule another hearing to reexamine the case. Cagle will have another chance to appeal to the N.C. Office of State Personnel if the board upholds their June 21 decision.

In the meantime, the board has said it will keep Smith at the helm of DSS until a permanent replacement can be installed.

For now, Swain County Department of Social Services Director Tammy Cagle still has her job. But that might soon be in question after a decision made by the county’s DSS board Monday night.

Supporters of the suspended Cagle gathered at the board’s meeting, speaking out in her favor before board members entered an hour-long executive session to discuss Cagle’s future with the department.

In the end, the five-member board voted unanimously to call Cagle back to a hearing later this month “to consider dismissal.”

Cagle herself spoke in her own defense prior to the closed session, telling board members that she’d never instigated a cover-up in the department, as has been alleged by former social worker Craig Smith.

Smith, who was placed on leave and has now resigned his post, told investigators that Cagle and Program Manager T.L. Jones ordered him to falsify reports following the death of Aubrey Littlejohn, a 15-month-old Cherokee baby who died in January despite repeated visits from DSS representatives. Cagle was suspended from her post while an investigation into the baby’s death was undertaken.

“I realize that my silence for so long has been a mistake,” said Cagle, going on to defend her agency and its actions. “Have I made mistakes and am I still learning as a director? Absolutely. Have I led or participated in any cover-up or falsification of records with this agency? No, absolutely not.”

Cagle was joined at the podium by family members and former DSS clients, who praised her merits as a director and a social worker.

Also present, though, were some from Aubrey’s family, asking that her memory not be forgotten and that Cagle be held accountable for how DSS handled the case.

“I’m here because of our child that died, we can’t bring her back. She [Cagle] can go out and get another job, we can’t get our baby back,” said Ruth McCoy, Aubrey’s aunt. McCoy said she was disappointed by the board’s inaction on the matter.

“I mean, I thought they were going to take action on this tonight, but it seems like they’re just going to discuss it,” said McCoy. “It seems like the people that came out to support her were more angry about our family and her job than about what happened.”

And some who came to back Cagle did lay the blame for Aubrey’s death on her family, rather than on DSS.

“I can’t blame other people for what happens to my children. They knew how Ladybird [Powell, Aubrey’s caretaker] was all of her life, her entire life, now why didn’t they go get that child when it was first put there in the beginning?” asked Eunice Washington of Aubrey’s family.

While eight people shared their thoughts on Cagle’s fitness to lead the organization, the board itself remained quiet on the issue. They called Cagle in for discussions, but said their only comment would be to schedule a hearing to discuss Cagle’s possible dismissal.

It’s not only been the staff, but the DSS board too has seen upheaval in the aftermath of Aubrey’s death.

After a tense closed session in March, when the board deadlocked on whether to suspend Cagle and Jones, most of the board turned in their resignations under pressure from county commissioners. But they didn’t go down quietly, taking to the podium at a commissioners’ meeting to berate that board for denigrating them publicly.

Currently, three of the five social services board members are just over two months into the job. Frela Beck and Robert White, also a county commissioner, are the only remaining members.

Some asked why Jones, Cagle’s second-in-command, had been allowed to stay on, while the director was put on administrative leave with pay.

Jones and two of the other four employees named in an SBI search warrant issued in an investigation are still on board with the department. They have, however, been asked by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to stay away from the Qualla Boundary, instead sending other social workers to handle cases there.  

The DSS board has called a pre-disciplinary hearing for June 21, where they said they’ll talk to Cagle about her future with the department.


Social worker resigns

Craig Smith, the Swain County social worker named in a recent SBI investigation, has resigned from the Department of Social Services.  

Smith came under scrutiny during a probe by the Swain County Sheriff’s Department and the SBI into the death of 15-month-old Aubrey Littlejohn. Smith was Aubrey’s caseworker and visited her home several times prior to her January death, though he took no steps to remove her and made no follow-ups.

After her death, Smith falsified records to make it appear that he’d kept up with the child. He told investigators that he did it at the direction of his superiors, including Program Manager T.L. Jones and suspended Director Tammy Cagle.

Investigations by the SBI and an internal social services investigation are still underway.

About two years ago, a sting was set to take place at a party in the Hickory Knoll area outside of Franklin. Inside the house, the Macon County Sheriff’s Department was told, there was a 47-year-old woman — the former wife of a doctor, with three children of her own — who was boozing it up, and maybe even getting high, with a group of underage kids.

The plan that night was twofold: enforce a judge’s order to remove the woman’s youngest daughter and hand her over to her father, Dr. Scott Petty; discover if there was evidence supporting allegations the woman, Elizabeth “Liz” Marie Mills, was having sex with one of the boys partying in the house.

His name, cops had been told, was Joseph (not his real name, which has been changed to protect his identity). Joseph was a Mexican-American either 14 or 15 years old, and a student at the local high school. Mills reportedly met the boy while working for Meridian Behavorial Health Services in Franklin, an agency tasked, among other things, with helping troubled youths and adults.

Although exactly what happened next is the subject of heated dispute, the outcome isn’t: the sting never came off. Instead, it fell apart after angry words were exchanged between a private investigator hired by Mill’s ex-husband and Macon County’s chief detective.

The girl was taken out as ordered. But any case against Mills involving sex with a minor, at least as far as the Macon County Sheriff’s Department was concerned, pretty much ended on that June night in 2009. Though, technically, the case remains open, because there is no statute of limitations in North Carolina on felonies. And having sex with an underage boy is a felony crime. Even though in this case, the young man was apparently a more-than-willing participant in whatever, exactly, was or was not taking place between the two.

Mills, contacted via cell phone in Florida this week, declined to comment.


The Sunny State intervenes

On March 23, Florida cops busted Mills, now 49, for unlawful sexual activity with a minor — having sex with Joseph. The boy’s aunt, after a fight with Mills, reportedly called the cops and told of an inappropriate relationship between her nephew and the North Carolina woman.

Mills, some time after the big party in Franklin that either did or did not take place, depending on whom you believe, hitched a horse trailer crammed with personal belongings behind her black 350-Chevy dually truck. She moved the 500 miles south to Florida. This move came after the boy went to the Hernando area to live with family members.

Joseph’s move to Florida seemed to coincide with one of his frequent brushes with juvenile law authorities.

Mills told her daughters (then ages 14, 17 and 20) she was leaving Franklin to attend massage therapy school in Florida. And she did, at least for a year or so. By September of last year, however — with Joseph’s mother’s permission — Mills had ensconced herself in a bedroom of the family’s house with the boy, police told Florida reporters.

Joseph’s mother, not identified here by name to further protect the boy’s identity, was arrested the same day as Mills for child neglect. It isn’t clear whether the mother was charged in connection with allowing Mills to move in with Joseph, or whether her arrest involved the other children living in the house. Joseph has a younger brother and two younger sisters.

Florida authorities told reporters that Mills admitted to having begun a “romantic relationship” with Joseph in March 2010, and of having had sex with the boy “several times,” according to published reports. Mills did not admit to having had sex with Joseph in North Carolina, though she told police they’d met “during a group therapy session in North Carolina in 2008 when he was 15.”

Chalk it up to the angry aunt, or to providence in general, but a case against the woman North Carolina authorities couldn’t, or wouldn’t, prosecute is now making its way through the Florida court system.

Prosecutors from Florida have contacted private investigator Danny Cheatham, the man hired by Mills’ ex-husband to look into her activities. Cheatham indicated Florida authorities might well ask him to come testify against Mills, something he said he’s willing — even eager — to do.

That is, if the case against Mills in Florida does actually make it to court. Investigator Russell Suess, who works for the prosecutor there, Brian Trehy, said he was limited in what he could say, but noted the case against Mills has not been formally filed. The prosecution, Suess said, is reviewing the facts.

What’s not clear is whether the delay in a formal filing is an unusual or routine procedure in that state. In North Carolina, such hesitation might indicate the prosecution had some concerns about whether the cops involved had fully dotted all the necessary i’s and carefully crossed each of the t’s.

In the meantime, Mills is out of jail on $5,000 bond. She’s forbidden by court order to see Joseph.


A promising future derails

Being a doctor’s wife comes with certain financial perks. After Mills and Petty moved to Macon County, Mills spent most of her time on their 92-acre spread tending to horses. Petty, her ex-husband, is a radiologist at Angel Medical Center in Franklin.

Petty and Mills met at a private high school in Charlotte, and began dating during college. They were both bright people, with what, at the time, must have seemed an array of possibilities before them. He was at Duke; Mills was at UNC Chapel Hill. When they turned 22, they got married.

Once the children were born, Petty and his wife battled about how to best raise them.

Petty played the part of disciplinarian; Mills, he said, was the children’s “friend.” In perhaps one of the few hints of the trouble that was to come, Petty described a woman who perhaps had difficulty with her role as an adult functioning in an adult world.

“She was unable to parent the children as they entered their teens, instead she treated them as friends and equals without normal boundaries and rules,” Petty said.

Mills’ possible confusion over, or dislike of being, an adult wasn’t helped, perhaps, by a petite stature — the Florida mug shot she glares out of, the muscles in her face tensed and hard, recorded her height as just 5 feet tall, and her weight as 100 pounds.

After Petty and she finally called a spade a spade and formally ended the marriage after 23 years, Mills dropped about 35 pounds, going from a comfortable weight for her height and build to very, very thin. She got tattoos.

And, Petty said, she found a new interest: Joseph.


Meridian tightlipped

Mills hadn’t needed to hold a job since living in Chapel Hill, where her husband, after finishing up at Duke, went to medical school and completed his medical residency. Mills, for a short time back then, had picked up some extra cash working at a local animal shelter.

When the couple split, Mills needed money. With barely any work history to boast of, she turned to her one and only employment asset: a psychology degree from those years at UNC. Mills applied for, and got, an entry-level position at Meridian Behavorial Health Services, a multi-county nonprofit mental-health provider.

Meridian’s Franklin office is housed in an inconspicuous, single-level building on Macon Avenue, within spitting distance of the county courthouse and a few blocks from Angel Medical Center, where Petty worked.

Mills’ job largely seemed to consist of ferrying kids about to various appointments.

Petty, passing Meridian on his way to work, would sometimes see Mills out front smoking cigarettes among a group of boys. In that group, though he couldn’t know it then, was Joseph. There was gossip at the hospital, too — Petty wasn’t the only one who was noticing that the doctor’s former wife seemed a bit too chummy with the group she was tasked with monitoring.

Joseph and some of the other kids from Meridian were soon “working” at Mills’ home, Petty said, cutting grass and painting walls. His daughters told him of parties, and he and his new wife, Meg, started witnessing the same behaviors firsthand.

The newly married couple was fixing up the “big” house he’d bought his former wife out of, while she moved down the mountain into a smaller farmhouse they’d also owned. Mills was busy making plans to build yet another house on the 20 acres of property she’d gotten in the divorce.

The situation had grown increasingly strange.

But who could say what exactly took place behind closed doors, when Joseph — the charge of Meridian Behavorial Health Services — and Mills, the agency’s employee, disappeared inside.

Meridian Executive Director Joe Ferrara did not return a voice-mail message seeking comment.


Building a case, or a fabrication?

Joseph, at least from a distance, looked like a big, tough adult guy, even when he and Mills first met and he was just 14 or 15 years old. Joseph had tattoos. He boxed at a local sports club. His language, even by the lowest of teen standards, was remarkably foul. Later, when deputies tried to interview the boy about whether he was a victim of sexual abuse — twice — his response was succinct each time: “Fuck you,” they reported him as replying.

The neighbors thought, for a while, that he was “just” a Mexican laborer helping Mills keep up the horse farm. At least they did until the touching between he and Mills grew excessive, Petty said. A neighbor, scandalized, told the doctor that Mills and Joseph would ride around together on an ATV, cuddling, even groping.

The neighbor complained he’d seen Mills in the yard “dry humping” the boy. Petty, who was becoming increasingly anxious about his youngest daughter, who was still in the farmhouse living with Mills, was spurred to action. He wanted full custody, and he’d do almost anything to get his daughter back.

On the advice of his attorney, Monty Beck, a former assistant district attorney, the doctor called private investigator Cheatham. Petty was very clear in his instructions. He wrote, according to the case file made available to The Smoky Mountain News:

“I am interested in knowing who has access to my children, particularly my 14-year-old. I want to know how long and what kind of relationship my ex has with this boy Joseph who she used to (or still does) work with through Meridian Health Services. Is it legal? Sexual? Immoral or inappropriate? Does it break laws or Meridian’s rules of conduct? Who are the other people we see at my ex’s house? Is my ex doing drugs? Drinking and driving? Exposing my children to dangerous persons? Allowing or assisting my children or the children she ‘cares’ for professionally to break the law (drugs/alcohol/etc.)? My ex is destroying my children because of her lack of boundaries, rules and parental ethics. Who lives there?”

The answer to most of those questions, Cheatham said, was yes — Mills was having, at the very least, inappropriate relations with Joseph. She was providing underage kids beer and cigarettes, and he could prove it. Or, he could if local law enforcement would only get on board, and go inside that house with a search warrant and seize underwear, sheets, and other items. Then, Cheatham was sure, they’d find DNA evidence.

Cheatham is no fly-by-night, wished-he-had-a-badge-but-doesn’t private dick. He’s a former U.S. Marine and experienced cop. Born in Andrews, he grew up and later worked for two decades in Florida law enforcement agencies, including as a real live badged-up official detective. He came back to Western North Carolina to help care for his mother after his father died, and ended up getting licensed by the state as a private investigator.

It’s not easy being a freelancer. Cops and other duly sanctioned law-enforcement authorities are suspicious of people hired by clients to build cases, and mountain people, as a rule, don’t enjoy Floridians, even those with roots to this region, because they are suspicious — rightfully so, sometimes — that move-ins might just think they know how to do things better. And, the truth is, on occasion they do.

Cheatham, at least in this one meeting, was unassuming. But, if you are screwing around on your mate, or generally getting up to no good, he should scare the hell out of you.

This is the guy people in the western part of the state are calling when they want to build cases: custody cases, divorce cases, you name it. And it’s not just the disgruntled private Joes and Janes of WNC who are tapping Cheatham: The Cherokee tribe recently relied on the investigator to help investigate Swain County’s Department of Social Services after an Indian child they’d been notified to keep safe instead died.

Cheatham uses every trick in the book, and he does so legally under the auspices of the great state of North Carolina. GPS units on cars (“you’ll never spot us these days in your rear-view mirror”), videos shot using night-vision capabilities, undercover infiltrators armed with a camera that looks like a shirt button. For $45 to $150 an hour on average, you get what you pay for. And, sometimes, you pay a lot: before it was all said and done and Petty begged off because, he wrote, “we are absolutely broke,” the doctor shelled out more than $20,000 to investigate his former wife.


The case unfolds

The investigator and his staff went after the case hard — from May 18 through June 24 of 2009 they tracked, trailed and spied on Mills. One of their best vantage points proved to be Petty’s home on the hill above the farmhouse. But they also tracked Mills going into nearby Rabun County, Georgia, to pick up Joseph from his home, and followed the woman and boy around Clayton, Ga., and Franklin.

A few highlights from the case file Cheatham’s agency, DC Investigations, built for Petty:

“June 3, 8:41 p.m.: Investigator Winthrow observed and videotaped Ms. Petty’s (Mills) SUV parked in front of the Peking Gourmet restaurant in Clayton, Ga. Joseph and Ms. Petty were already in the restaurant eating when we got there.

“8:57 p.m.: Investigator Winthrow observed and videotaped Joseph and Ms. Petty exit the Peking Gourmet Restaurant. Joseph was eating an ice-cream cone. After he took a bite from it, he put the ice cream up to Ms. Petty’s mouth. Ms. Petty ate part of his ice cream while he held it.

“June 5, 10:20 p.m.: Subject and two small children arrived at subject’s vehicle. Subject started loading the children into vehicle. Approximately two minutes later, Joseph also arrived at vehicle and walked around to the passenger side where he met subject. The two of them engaged in a kiss on the mouth and then got into vehicle.”

A young female investigator working for Cheatham insinuated herself into the household. Identified as Investigator Medford in the case file, the woman showed up at Mills’ door May 23 pretending she’d had a fight with her boyfriend and that he’d put her out of his car.

She was convincing — after that, Joseph began texting the investigator, and eventually she’d be invited to his going-away party to Florida: the night the sting that was to be didn’t happen.

Cheatham met with the Macon County Sheriff’s Department on June 23.

“During the meeting, investigators … provided evidence they had acquired on subject, Elizabeth Petty. The plan for the sheriff’s department to raid the ‘going away’ party that subject was going to have for Joseph the next evening was also discussed, as well as, the plan during that same party, for subject’s daughter … to be taken from subject’s custody,” the file states.

The investigators and sheriff’s department investigators agreed to meet at 7 p.m. the next evening at the sheriff’s department.

The next night, when the private investigators showed up, Cheatham said the deputy on duty informed them Macon County Chief Investigator Brian Leopard wasn’t scheduled to work that evening. The private investigators, afraid according to Cheatham that young juvenile offenders going in and out of the sheriff’s department would spot them and blow their cover, left. They went to the parking lot of Smoky Mountain Hosts, a visitor’s center south of Franklin on U.S. 441, where they got a call from Leopard. The Macon County chief detective told the private investigators to meet him at the sheriff’s department, and, Cheatham said, Leopard told him angrily: “‘We’re going to meet when I say, how I say, or we’re not going to meet at all.’”

Cheatham called the meeting off.


So what happened?

Dr. Petty was stunned when he took the call from Cheatham and learned the sting wasn’t going to happen. Petty remembers Cheatham’s voice was shaking, and that the private investigator sounded upset and angry.

Still, there was that order from the judge for Petty’s youngest daughter to be removed from the house, and the doctor wanted her back. That, he said, was more important than anything else going on that night.

Petty met Brian Welch, the sheriff’s department’s attorney, at the sheriff’s offices to get his daughter. That part, at least, of the plan was executed without a hitch. Petty asked if anything was going to happen concerning his former wife, and Welch told him, he said, “we’re not going to do anything.”

“I was so mad, and so shocked. But then I needed to pay attention to my daughter — nothing else was done,” said Petty, who ended up getting full custody of his youngest child when Mills signed her over without protest.

Later, he said, he tried again to get deputies to do something, anything.

“We never got a straight answer from anybody,” Petty said.

Petty and his wife’s efforts haven’t been limited to deputies: Petty contacted District Attorney Mike Bonfoey, the Macon County Department of Social Services and the State Bureau of Investigation, sending detailed letters to each outlining his beliefs that his former wife was having sex with an underage boy.

“It wasn’t even investigated,” the doctor said, who eventually sent an open letter to various media outlets in the region, also to no avail.

So where has all this left him? In a word, angry. Actually, two words: very angry. And disillusioned with the system, and unbelieving that nothing, absolutely nothing, had been done.

Without answers, Petty and his new wife have been left to speculate, to formulate conclusions of their own:

• Perhaps the sheriff’s department was protecting one of its jailers, a young man then engaged to another of Petty’s daughters. Petty says the deputy was in the house on multiple occasions when, the doctor said, his ex-wife was partying with kids, and when Joseph was there.

• Maybe the investigators saw someone else on Cheatham’s surveillance videos, someone they wanted to protect — an undercover agent, or a kid from a prominent family.

• Perhaps in Macon County, nobody cares if boys might be sleeping with older women, particularly a foul-mouthed, punk kid who isn’t particularly appealing, frankly, in his role as a possible victim.



Jane Kimsey, the director of the county Department of Social Services, is so constrained legally about what she can and cannot talk about, her interview with The Smoky Mountain News largely consisted of handing over copies of the law governing DSS, complete with yellow highlighting of the fact her agency can only investigate caretakers. Mills, we are left to extrapolate, wasn’t an actual caretaker of Joseph — any investigation on that front was up to law enforcement.

District Attorney Bonfoey made the point that what Mills has been charged with in Florida would not even be a crime in North Carolina, because the age of consent there is 18. In this state, it is 16.

But what about possible crimes committed in Macon County when Joseph was 14 or 15?

Bonfoey emphasized he and Assistant District Attorney Ashley Welch, who is married to sheriff’s department Attorney Brian Welch, weren’t going to talk about this particular case, because it remains an open investigation.

“There may be information that comes out that allows us to investigate the matter here,” Bonfoey said.

Bonfoey, speaking generally, said law enforcement needs victims to cooperate, though of course his office has prosecuted sex cases without victims’ cooperation. Or, short of that, prosecutors require an eyewitness to the crimes willing to testify.

Welch has been the assistant district attorney in Macon County for six years. She has had 50 jury trials, losing only two, which Bonfoey said indicates defense attorneys underestimate her ability to put together cases and win them.

Welch wanted to know if there are insinuations that she didn’t take the situation seriously because it involved a possible male victim instead of a girl victim.

“A crime is a crime is a crime, when you are age 13, 14 or 15, you’re not mature enough to consent,” Welch said, adding that she was personally offended anyone would believe she might think otherwise.


Answers, or evasions?

At 44 and in his third term as the sheriff’s department’s leader, Macon County Sheriff Robert “Robby” Holland has grown comfortable in responding to questions from reporters. Affable, quick to build and maintain personal relationships with those tasked with covering him, he’s almost unflappable in an interview. Holland is difficult to put off stride and worm beneath the polish.

But if Holland has a weak spot, it’s for kids. Protecting children is a source of pride with him, forming the base of his successful political career.

The Republican sheriff is a former juvenile officer with experience in investigating sex crimes and other serious criminal charges. Like private investigator Cheatham, he grew up in Florida before coming to WNC. His family is from Macon County.

Holland was the lead investigator on a particularly horrific case in which a young Franklin woman killed her newborn in February 2000 and dumped the baby in a Dumpster (the baby’s body was subsequently compressed into a 8-inch by 6-inch bail of trash at the county landfill). Holland and wife, Marci, who worked then for the Macon County Department of Social Services, helped get state legislation passed so young mothers could safely surrender infants without fear of criminal charges.    

The ensuing publicity helped launch Holland’s political career. While there have been a few missteps along the way, Holland has largely spent the past nine years without serious taints on or questions about his administration.

In the interview with The Smoky Mountain News about this case, Holland includes Chief Deputy Andy Shields, Attorney Welch and Chief Investigator Leopard. The Macon County Sheriff’s Department has just sent out a news release announcing an arrest in a year-old homicide, and his cell phone occasionally buzzes as reporters call in, eager to get more information.

“I don’t want it to look in the paper like we didn’t care, and that we didn’t do our job — I am confident that my officers did what they should,” Holland said. “I, along with my chief investigator, chief deputy, staff attorney and members of the District Attorney’s Office, have reviewed this case, and I stand behind the decision not to file charges at this time due to the fact we continue to not have enough information to pursue a successful prosecution of this matter. This case remains open and any new information that is received will be investigated and, if appropriate, criminal charges will be pursued.”

Why didn’t you bust Mills?

“Because,” Holland replied, “nothing was ever substantiated.”

Why was nothing substantiated? Isn’t that law enforcement’s job?

Because this isn’t CSI: Crime Scene Investigation television, though the reply is more politely expressed than that. But, the sentiment of the exchange is accurate. Chief Investigator Leopard said five detectives were assigned to the case when he was initially notified of the allegations, but that subsequently, the facts as presented by Cheatham had proven not true.

Sheriff’s Attorney Welch added that prosecutors instructed the department to independently corroborate allegations in the case, and not to rely on the private investigator’s findings.

That’s because, Holland said, “Mr. Cheatham is a hired hand of Mr. Petty.” Cheatham was retained to build a case that would help win Petty custody of his daughter.

Chief Investigator Leopard added, the private investigator “wanted to run it. … He was concerned about getting her (Mills) charged with a felony, so that (Petty) wouldn’t have to pay so much alimony.”

The big party, the sheriff’s department leaders were asked?

“There was absolutely no big party going on,” Leopard said.

“Another outright lie,” Petty said later. “There was a party — they even setup a roadblock just down from the house and busted multiple people leaving the party, including Joseph for possession of drug paraphernalia and under-age drinking, and my daughter … who they let go with a warning.”

Leopard confirmed they stopped one of Petty’s daughters, but denied they picked up Joseph.

What about the young jailer engaged to Petty’s daughter? Why not interview him, and besides, why is he still an employee if he witnessed and failed to report possible crimes?

That’s not the situation as they understand it, Holland said. The jailer, newly hired if even at that point actually on the force, indeed came to his superior and reported a run in at his then future mother-in-law’s with a drunken juvenile. The jailer did nothing wrong.

Holland doesn’t mention the head of the jail is his brother, Capt. Tim Holland. Perhaps there’s no relevance.

Petty again disputed the sheriff department. There’s proof, he said, of the young jailer being involved more deeply in the situation than Holland acknowledged:

“I have pictures of (the jailer), Joseph, and my daughters lying on top of each other on Liz’s (his former wife’s) couch,” the doctor said. “He was there for most or all of the parties and he was there on a daily basis watching the relationship between Liz and Joseph unfold.”

Petty also said Leopard told him that he wouldn’t interrogate the young jailer involved because he “wouldn’t want to mess up his relationship with his future mother-in-law.”

Why did the sheriff’s department fail to meet Cheatham when agreed? Cheatham left the sheriff’s department for fear, he had said, of being spotted by young thugs reporting in to probation officers. The private investigators were supposed to meet their public counterparts, Macon County’s detectives, at the sheriff’s department.

Macon County’s top law enforcement officers, however, dispute even that point, noting that the probation officers are located in the administration building, a couple miles away in downtown Franklin. No juveniles were likely to be at the sheriff’s department that night.

It is possible that Cheatham, who lives in Waynesville, could simply not know where the probation officers in Franklin work. That doesn’t surface as a possibility during the interview with the sheriff and his employees, however.

Then, the situation that night between the sheriff’s department and the private investigator hired by Petty grew increasingly complex, Holland said.

After leaving the sheriff’s department, Cheatham moved over to the Smoky Mountain Visitor’s Center and called deputies to meet him there.

Holland said an undercover drug buy by the sheriff’s department, coincidentally, had just taken place at the visitor’s center in an unrelated case. That’s why the cops were late, and why they couldn’t meet there.

The sheriff said his chief detective did not share this explanation with the private investigator because it wasn’t Cheatham’s business, and doing so wouldn’t have been appropriate. And the sheriff’s department certainly wasn’t going to risk blowing that drug-buy operation, or risk the safety of undercover officers involved, on the orders of a private investigator telling them where to gather. Or follow his directions about how to conduct a raid, either.

“You have to have probable cause,” Holland said.

And Attorney Welch added, “We would have been sued for violating her (Mills’) constitutional rights if we’d gone in the way Mr. Cheatham wanted us to.”

In this situation, without Joseph’s cooperation, there was no case to be made, the sheriff said.

“Do we believe there was some inappropriate activity going on? Yes, we do. But we have to have more than our feelings,” Holland said.

“There was no case here, ever, based on the information we had,” Welch added.

One additional note: After Joseph took off for Florida, Attorney Welch said the sheriff’s department called police there and asked them, apparently with no success, to try to get the boy to cooperate.

“We asked, would you interview him, because he refused to talk to us twice,” the attorney said.

The sheriff’s department’s leaders said they’ve called Florida authorities again following news of Mills’ arrest. They hadn’t heard back from their Florida counterparts as of the beginning of this week.

To describe Petty as being frustrated by the explanations offered falls somewhere short of the truth. In an email, Petty noted:

• “We presented video, audio, written and eyewitness evidence to the Macon County Sheriff’s Department that strongly supported our allegations. Our concerns were not based on alimony payments … but on a concern for my daughters, concern for Joseph and the other young males … and hoping to live in a place where sex between adults and children was not tolerated.”

• Petty also said there were other possible eyewitnesses involved: the neighbor, and the young jailer, “who had direct eyewitness knowledge.” Also, he said, personnel at Franklin High School had expressed concerns about the relationship between Joseph and Mills.  

• Petty and his wife firmly believe, claims to the contrary notwithstanding, that a double standard governed officers’ and prosecutors’ reactions.

“If Liz was a 47-year-old male, and Joseph was a 14- 15-year-old girl, the adult would already be tried and convicted,” Petty said. “‘A crime is a crime’ … actions speak far louder than words.

“Because of their inaction, Liz continued doing and enabling the same things that we alleged until she was arrested in Florida … the victim and his family should sue Macon County for failing to protect him, and green-lighting Liz to continue her sick and very destructive and abusive behaviors.”

Hypothermia is a possible cause of death for Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn, a 15-month-old Cherokee baby who died in January, according to a state autopsy report released last week.

The autopsy also showed indications of multiple bruises to the head and a broken arm.

Relatives had repeatedly warned Swain County Department of Social Services of suspected abuse and neglect by the baby’s caretaker, but DSS failed to take action. Swain DSS is now under investigation for an alleged cover-up, including falsifying records to hide any negligence on their part.

Aubrey had been living in a trailer with of her great aunt, Lady Bird Powell, 38. Relatives say there was no heat in the trailer. When Aubrey was brought to the Cherokee Indian Hospital the night she died, she was dressed in only a T-shirt. Her core body temperature was only 84 degrees and she was pronounced dead shortly after arrival.

The doctor performing the autopsy could not decisively pinpoint a cause of death and officially deemed it “undetermined.”

“The cause of death certainly wasn’t obvious,” said Dr. Donald Jason, a pathologist at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.

However, hypothermia remains a possible cause of death.

“We certainly have not ruled out hypothermia,” Jason said.

Hypothermia is difficult to confirm unequivocally through an autopsy and requires “a thorough scene investigation to support a cause of death as hypothermia,” Jason wrote in his report.

It will ultimately take “really good police work” to figure out what happened, Jason said.

“Just like in all science, one has a hypothesis that can be formed from what people say happened or reasonable guesses. The autopsy is one test,” Jason said.

Law enforcement failed to take the temperature inside the trailer. Their reports merely reflect that it was “cold,” Jason said.

Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran said the investigation has not been called off just because the autopsy came back with an undetermined cause of death.

“We are still investigating. When the investigation is concluded, we’ll sit down with the District Attorney’s office and determine what if any charges will be coming out of this,” Cochran said.

While the autopsy did not confirm homicide, it likewise did not confirm death from natural causes.

“Questions have been raised. I don’t think they are answered by the autopsy alone,” Jason said.

The autopsy showed multiple bruises to the head that seem to have occurred within a day prior to death. It would not have been possible to receive all the bruises from a single fall, Jason said. However, whatever struck the child’s head was not severe enough to be linked to the cause of death or to the brain swelling.

It also revealed that both bones in Aubrey’s forearm had previously been broken. The break was consistent with a blow to the forearm, rather than a fall, Jason said. Jason said the injury would have been quite noticeable, however, Aubrey was never taken to the hospital or a doctor for it, according to law enforcement records.

In addition to claims by family members who say DSS had reason to suspect abuse and neglect but failed to act, court papers involving other children in Powell’s care reveal that Swain County social workers had reports of physical abuse of Aubrey months before her death.

Additional evidence has surfaced indicating Swain County social workers failed to act on reports of alleged abuse and neglect of a Cherokee baby who later died.

Court papers reveal that Swain County social workers had reports of physical abuse of Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn by her caregiver, Ladybird Powell, months before she died in January.

The papers were filed by the Jackson County Department of Social Services in a custody case involving another child in Powell’s care.

Powell’s treatment of Aubrey and her still unexplained death weighed heavily in a petition filed by Jackson DSS to have an 8-year-old boy removed from Powell’s custody.

Although Powell lives in Cherokee, the tribe does not have its own agency to handle child abuse and neglect cases. Instead, the child welfare divisions of Jackson and Swain DSS manage cases on tribal land. Previously, Powell lived on the Swain County side of the reservation, so the case fell to Swain DSS.

But Powell has moved, as has the 8-year-old boy, who now lives on the Jackson County side of the reservation, giving Jackson DSS jurisdiction.

The petition filed by Jackson County DSS reveals the following:

• Swain DSS initiated an investigation into suspected child abuse and neglect involving Aubrey in November 2010. (This was the second such investigation in three months. Until now, however, only the first had been made public.)

• The report of abuse made to Swain DSS in November claimed that Powell “smacked Aubrey in the mouth when she cried and jerked Aubrey around,” and “knocked Aubrey off a bed intentionally.”

• Swain County social workers visited Powell’s home three days after the report came in. They had Powell sign a statement saying, “Ladybird will not physically punish Aubrey.” Aubrey was 13 months old at the time.

The first investigation of abuse and neglect by Swain DSS was in September. In that case, Powell claimed bruises on Aubrey were the result of a fall down the stairs.

A DSS worker deemed the report of abuse “unsubstantiated” after one visit to the home. While he told Powell to take Aubrey to the doctor and have her injuries examined, he never followed up to see what the doctor found — or whether the doctor’s visit even took place. He later fabricated a report claiming Aubrey had been seen by a doctor when in fact she never had, according to law enforcement records.

Swain County DSS is under investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation for an alleged cover-up. An interim director has been brought in, and three DSS board members have been replaced.

Ruth McCoy, one of Aubrey’s great-aunts, said there were other complaints from relatives ignored by Swain DSS — one of which she observed firsthand.

In November, McCoy heard from a relative that DSS had shown up at Powell’s trailer to take away a 10-year-old boy who was living there at the time. McCoy drove over to the trailer and implored the DSS workers to remove Aubrey as well. There was no heat in the trailer, and it was obvious to the social workers, McCoy said.

“The social workers were sitting there on the couch with their hands clasped between their legs to keep warm,” McCoy said.

One of them was Swain DSS Program Manager T.L. Jones, second in command at the agency. Jones even went out to his vehicle to get a jacket, McCoy said. Meanwhile, Aubrey was dressed in a jacket and toboggan inside the trailer. McCoy asked if Jones was going to take Aubrey, too.

“I said ‘What about her?’ and he said, ‘That’s another case.’ They were removing a 10-year-old and there was no heat but they didn’t take her,” McCoy said.

The night of Jan. 10 when Aubrey died, emergency room doctors at Cherokee Indian Hospital recorded her core body temperature as only 84 degrees, according to law enforcement records.

The reason for removing the 10-year-old was documented as drug and/or alcohol use by the caregiver, according to a Swain DSS report. The caregiver listed on the report was the boy’s biological mother, Mel Toinetta, who was living at the trailer with Powell.

The 10-year-old was placed in the care of McCoy.


Autopsy still pending

Doctors at Cherokee Indian Hospital the night Aubrey died suspected drugs may have been in the baby’s system and contributed to her death, according to the Jackson DSS petition.

No charges have been filed against Powell in connection with Aubrey’s death. An autopsy report, including a toxicology report, is still pending. The autopsy and toxicology report have been completed, but have not yet been reviewed and cleared for public release. The Smoky Mountain News has filed a request to receive a copy of the report when it is made public.

It appears Swain DSS was waiting for the results — which should clarify a cause of death — before deciding what to do about Powell’s custody of the 8-year-old boy.

The day after Aubrey’s death, a Swain DSS worker visited Powell’s trailer to check on the boy. Powell had legal custody of the child since he was 2. Recently, he had been living with Powell on and off, but seemed to be spending more time lately at the home of Powell’s ex-husband.

That must have seemed preferable to the case worker, as she wrote in her report that the boy should live with Powell’s ex-husband rather than Powell “until notified by DSS.” But that was crossed out and replaced with “until the toxicology report is in.”

Powell made derogatory and threatening comments to Swain social workers over the pending toxicology report, including that she would make them “eat the results when they come back negative,” according to the court petition.

The boy’s school expressed concern over the informal arrangement that placed the boy with Powell’s ex-husband. Since Powell still had legal custody, the school had nothing on file to prevent her from picking the boy up.

Jackson DSS apparently does not approve either, deeming the temporary placement with Powell’s ex-husband an inappropriate child-care arrangement, according to the petition filed by Jackson DSS alleging neglect of the boy.

The petition states that the boy “lives in an environment injurious to the juvenile’s welfare.”

A county commissioner got financial aid from the Swain County Department of Services last year while his niece was serving as the DSS director, prompting the development of a new conflict of interest policy.

The new policy prohibits the DSS director from approving benefits for family members. At least three family members of DSS Director Tammy Cagle got financial payments from the agency — including her uncle, County Commissioner Steve Moon.

Cagle’s role in approving the benefits was questioned by the DSS board last October but they found no wrongdoing, according to board members.

“The board met and we reviewed each instance, and we found no illegalities concerning either state or federal policies. We reviewed it very carefully, but everything was above board,” said Bob Thomas, a former DSS board member. “It was maybe a question of judgment, but there was nothing illegal about anything that was done.”

Moon received financial assistance from DSS after his house burned down last year. Moon said he does not know whether Cagle personally signed off on the aid. His wife made the application, he said. Moon owns a tire store and his wife has a job with the school system.

Cagle was recently suspended with pay due to an unrelated investigation of the agency by the State Bureau of Investigation. DSS workers have been accused of a cover-up following the death of a Cherokee baby in an attempt hide potential negligence on their part.

Moon was the lone county commissioner who believed Cagle should remain in her post during the SBI investigation. County commissioners voted 4 to 1 to call on the DSS board to put Cagle on administrative leave after she was named in a search warrant. Moon did not recuse himself from the vote even though Cagle is his niece.

The names of Cagle’s other family members who received benefits, and the amount they received is not public record.

Cagle’s home phone number is not listed. Attempts to contact her through DSS’ attorney were unsuccessful.


Change in policy

Minutes of a DSS board meeting last October show the board discussed the issue in closed session, citing confidential personnel matters as the reason for closing the meeting.

Upon coming out of closed session, however, the board announced that Cagle had done nothing wrong. The board passed a resolution affirming support for Cagle.

“The Swain County DSS board fully supports the director in performing the duties as required by the county, state and federal guidelines,” the resolution stated.

Cagle then “expressed her appreciation of the board’s support,” according to the minutes of the meeting.

The following month, however, the board passed a conflict of interest policy that prohibits the director from approving assistance for family members or signing their benefit checks.

“At no time will the Director be involved with the decision making process of determining eligibility for any program,” the new policy states.

Family members of the director must apply through the same outlets as the public would — namely with the supervisor over the specific aid program they are applying for, whether its food stamps or one-time emergency rent assistance. In addition, the program manager, who serves as second in command for the agency, must approve the benefits and sign checks made out to the director’s family members.

The purpose of the policy was to prevent Cagle from being in a situation where she would have to explain or justify herself, according to Jim Gribble, a DSS board member at the time.

“We just wanted to remove any suspicion toward her for approving anything for her family,” Gribble said.

The conflict of interest policy was approved by the board in November and devised with input from a state DSS liaison.

Thomas said the same protocol should extend to any DSS worker.

“Anything involving any employee’s family needed to be served by someone other than a family member,” Thomas said.

Thomas and Gribble said the issue was first raised by the county manager or county commissioners, who expressed concerns about benefits being paid out to Cagle’s family members.

“There were a couple questions raised by commissioners as to whether assistance given was legal or not,” Thomas said.

Gribble said the questions were raised by the county manager.

While the DSS board cleared Cagle, it does not appear the DSS board independently verified whether the particular family members qualified for the benefits.

When asked if they were eligible, Gribble said “I assume so,” but added that, “The board doesn’t do eligibility.”

Since the specific benefits are not public record, it is not certain what aid program Moon tapped after his house burned down.

Moon said it was emergency assistance. However, he would not be eligible for that program according to the guidelines. Emergency assistance provides money “for families in short-term financial crisis due to unusual circumstances,” but the household must have a child under the age of 18 and be living below the poverty level, according to the eligibility guidelines.

An interim director is now at the helm of the Swain County Department of Social Services, bringing to the table an impressive resume with a focus on child welfare.

“That was real important to us,” said Georgianna Carson, a newly appointed DSS board member.

Jerry Smith served as a DSS director for 25 years in three different counties, including a year as president of the North Carolina Social Services Association. He also worked as the director of a children’s home after retiring from DSS and has written two books about foster homes and orphanages.

Smith’s background in child welfare is notable given the controversy surrounding the embattled agency. He is stepping in for former director Tammy Cagle, who was put on administrative leave with pay during an investigation into the death of a Cherokee baby. DSS failed to remove the baby from her caretaker and later conspired to cover up their own negligence, according to law enforcement records.

Four of the five DSS board members are new following resignations of former board members in the wake of the controversy.

Smith’s past experience as a DSS director is also critical. He knows the intricacies of the agency — with its maze of state and federal funding formulas and stacks of manuals that prescribe state and federal laws and policies.

“He is going to be a real asset for Swain County,” Carson said.

Smith was brought on board just two days after Cagle was put on leave. County leaders already had been in contact with the state Department of Health and Human Services to help identify a candidate to take over the agency.

The DSS board can’t say when, or if, Cagle might return to her post, or how long Smith will remain in place.

“He is going to be here as long as we need for him to be. I feel for sure it will be several months,” Carson said.

The agency is conducting its own internal investigation independently of the SBI, according to Justin Greene, the attorney for Swain DSS. That internal investigation will presumably determine whether any employees should be disciplined or terminated.

For now the county is having to pay Smith’s salary on top of Cagle’s, who is only on administrative leave. The county has a contract with an executive staffing firm for Smith’s services at the rate of $60 an hour, a portion of which the firm likely keeps as commission. That translates to an annual salary of $124,000.

As for the SBI investigation, no one knows when it will end.

“There is no way for us to speculate how long the investigation may take,” said Jennifer Canada, a spokesperson for the N.C. Department of Justice.  “Once it is complete, the SBI will turn over a report of its finding to the local district attorney for review. The DA will determine whether to file any charges.”

Carson said the death of the baby in January is a tragedy and needs a thorough and unbiased investigation, but it should not define DSS.

“Justice has got to be served, but at the same time we have got to mend fences,” Carson said. “I think people have gotten so focused on this one issue they have forgotten that this agency does so many things for the people of Swain County. We have so many good employees.”


Other DSS changes

Meanwhile, the chain of command for DSS Attorney Justin Greene will be altered. He will answer directly to the DSS board rather than the director. The SBI investigation and the turmoil leading up to Cagle’s suspension revealed the potential for conflicts of interest if Greene is under the director’s command.

The DSS board meets the last Monday of the month at 5:30 p.m. The old DSS board would only allow members of the public to speak if they requested to do so in writing two weeks prior to the meeting, and even then they could be turned down if their topic wasn’t considered fitting. While county commissioners and town boards are required by law to have public comment periods, appointed bodies like the DSS board are not.

Nonetheless, the new board has changed the policy and will allow anyone to speak up to five minutes.

“We know we are not elected officials, but at the same time we are there to serve the people of Swain County and we didn’t want to seem like we were being aloof or unable to be contacted if need be,” said Carson.


Who is Swain’s interim DSS director?

Jerry Smith has his masters in social work from UNC-Chapel Hill, considered among the best in the field nationally. From 1973 to 1997 he served as a DSS director in Washington and Wilson counties in North Carolina and Tazewell County in Virginia. He served as president of the N.C. Social Services Association in 1990. After retiring from DSS work, he was the director for two years at Holston Methodist Home for Children in Knoxville, Tenn., and has continued to provide services there as a trainer. He is the author of two books about foster homes and orphanages.

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