BRYSON CITY — Ruth McCoy says she pleaded for months to have her niece’s 1-year-old daughter removed from a dirty mobile home that did not have heat in western North Carolina. When social workers and sheriff’s deputies arrived on a cold night in November 2010, they took the toddler’s 11-year-old cousin, leaving Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn behind at the relative’s house.
Two months later, the little girl was dead.
“I begged them to take my niece,” McCoy said. “I said, ‘What about her? You have to take her, too.’ They just left her. What they did was wrong.”
A year later, no one has been charged in the toddler’s death. The state medical examiner said she died of “undetermined” causes, but noted bruises and broken bones.
While Swain County authorities continue to investigate, The Associated Press found Aubrey was failed by virtually every institution that was supposed to protect her.
Despite repeated complaints from family members and friends, social workers left the toddler in an environment deemed unsafe for other children. After Aubrey’s death, social workers falsified records to cover their tracks, according to more than two dozen interviews and police and court documents. The sheriff’s department also had a chance to intervene, but deferred to social workers.
“Their behavior is inexcusable,” David Wijewickrama, an attorney for Aubrey’s mother, said of social workers and police.
Talmadge Jones of the Swain County Department of Social Services said he is prohibited by law from discussing the case.
The State Bureau of Investigation is looking into the death and the way the local agency handled her case.
“No one wanted to listen,” McCoy said. “No one wanted to help. This is a tragedy.”
Aubrey was born in October 2009 in Bryson City, a hardscrabble community in the Smoky Mountains. Like her mother, Aubrey was a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, a sovereign tribe whose casino is one of the region’s most important economic engines.
Her mother, Jasmine Littlejohn, had been in and out of trouble most of her life. She gave birth to Aubrey just months after being charged with three others on marijuana trafficking charges.
When she went to jail for a probation violation in April 2010, she turned to her aunts.
McCoy agreed to take care of Zoey, her older daughter, while Aubrey went to live with LadyBird Powell.
“I didn’t want to burden Aunt Ruth with two children,” Littlejohn told AP. “She had enough going on in her life. Plus, I thought it would be good for my Aunt Birdy.”
While Littlejohn was in jail awaiting trial on the marijuana charges, she said she never heard from Powell, 38. Family members told her they saw bruises on Aubrey. In one instance, Powell told family members the toddler was injured when she tumbled out of her car carrier and fell down several steps, according to police documents.
No one answered the door to Powell’s home, and she didn’t return multiple telephone messages.
When Littlejohn was released in October 2010, she went to get Aubrey, but Powell refused to let the girl leave until Littlejohn handed over half of her money tribe members receive annually from casino profits, Littlejohn said.
“I was shocked,” said Littlejohn, 21. “I said, ‘I’m not going to pay for my daughter. I want her back.’ Then she started raising her voice and getting real aggressive. She didn’t put her hands on me or nothing, but I could tell it was getting to that point.
She said she was worried that if she called police, she could get in trouble. After all, Littlejohn had just been released from jail and, if there was an altercation, who would believe her? She was afraid, so she left.
Littlejohn, McCoy and other family members said they returned to the trailer. But again, they said Powell refused to let the little girl go.
McCoy, a realty officer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said she continued to press authorities. She also worried about Aubrey’s cousin, the 11-year-old boy living with Powell.
“It just wasn’t a safe place,” McCoy said.
Swain County dispatch records show police visited Powell’s trailer three times between June and November 2010 on complaints that included domestic violence and a “drunk person causing a disturbance.” It’s not clear from the records who was intoxicated and or whether anyone was arrested. Police have refused to talk about the visits.
On Nov. 9, 2010, four sheriff’s deputies escorted several social workers to Powell’s home to investigate a complaint that the 11-year-old boy was living in a trailer with no heat and drugs. They removed the boy, placed him in McCoy’s custody and let Aubrey stay. The heat was off because the power bill wasn’t paid, but it’s unclear whether they found any drugs.
Under state Department of Health and Human Services guidelines, social workers are required to help all children living in unsafe conditions “whether or not they are named in the report.”
“We weren’t asked to remove the girl. We weren’t there for that,” Sheriff Curtis Cochran said. “If DSS had asked us, we would have done it.”
In North Carolina, the decision to remove a child rests with the county social services agency, according to Doriane Coleman, an expert on children’s law at Duke University Law School.
“There’s so much discretion built into the system, which is why mistakes are made sometimes,” she said. “You might get some counties that are more inclined to protect families than others. You get counties that are very ‘hear no evil, see no evil.’”
Nearly two months after she tried to get her daughter from the home, Littlejohn reported to jail to await trial in the marijuana case, with Powell still caring for Aubrey.
On Jan. 10, 2011, Powell and her boyfriend rushed Aubrey into the Cherokee Indian Hospital emergency room at 3:20 a.m. Thirty-six minutes later, the girl was pronounced dead.
Powell told Swain County Sheriff’s Detective Carolyn Posey that Aubrey was fine when she put the girl to bed. But when she checked a few hours later, she wasn’t breathing.
Posey called DSS and discovered the agency had at least two reports of neglect or abuse regarding Aubrey, according to police documents.
She met with several social workers, including Tammy Cagle, who headed the county social services agency at the time. It took two weeks, but when Posey received documents she requested, she discovered some were missing.
One report from social worker Craig Smith jumped out. He wrote that he received a complaint Sept. 15 that Aubrey had fallen down. He said he visited Powell a day later and the house was clean and stocked with food. But he also noticed a “small scratch” on the girl’s face, and told Powell to take her to the doctor.
Smith wrote he contacted the hospital to verify the visit, saying he talked to Dr. Dominique Toadt, but the physician told Posey she never treated the toddler or spoke with Smith.
Smith said he was instructed by his supervisors to falsify the records. He said his immediate supervisor, Candice Lassiter, “had given him (Smith) a handwritten note advising him what needed to be in his narrative,” according to police documents.
The detective interviewed more than a dozen people who said they “witnessed physical abuse and neglect inflicted on the child and observed no food, a lack of heat and other inadequacies in the home environment,” documents said. The witnesses said they contacted social workers, but didn’t receive a response.
Investigators on Feb. 21 seized items at the county social services office, including computers and thumb drives.
Since then, four DSS workers, including Lassiter, were suspended. Cagle, the agency’s director, was fired for what county officials said were unrelated reasons. Smith resigned.
Repeated telephone messages for Lassiter, Cagle and the other social workers were not returned. Through his lawyer, Smith declined to comment.
Meanwhile, friends and family members are frustrated at the pace of the investigation.
“This little girl is dead and they haven’t told us anything,” said McCoy, who still has custody of Zoey and a son born to Littlejohn after Aubrey’s death. “No one has been charged. This is very, very hard for all of us.”
Sheriff Cochran declined to discuss details, saying it’s an active investigation.
The state HHS has a board that reviews fatalities involving children who had contact with DSS in the year prior to their death. The board is made up of local and state officials who examine the death and make recommendations. The process is supposed to be quick, so officials can learn from mistakes.
In Aubrey’s case, a board hasn’t been appointed nearly a year later.
“There will be a review,” agency spokeswoman Renee McCoy said.
She said the SBI investigation will be part of the board’s review, as well as Swain County DSS notes and other documents.
While the community waits, Littlejohn pleaded guilty to drug trafficking and is serving two years.
She spends her days thinking about her daughter.
“Why has it taken so long for Swain County to do something for my baby?” she asked. “That’s my question I have for the investigators. What’s taking so long?”