Cherokees plan to create their own DSS agency

April 21, 2013 - 1:30 AM

BRYSON CITY, N.C. (AP) — Angry over the way Swain County social services workers handled a child abuse case in which a 15-month old girl died, a Native American tribe is planning to form its own agency to protect children on a North Carolina reservation.

A special committee of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will appoint a board for the proposed social services agency, said Ruth McCoy, a committee member, told The Associated Press. Once the board is appointed, it will hire a director, she said.

Other details will have to be worked out, including funding and hiring social services workers, but McCoy said appointing a board is a critical first step.

"We're doing this to protect our children," said McCoy, who works for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. "The goal is to have it going in the next year. After everything that's happened, this is something the chief has been working on, and we want to do."

McCoy is the great-aunt of Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn, whose 2011 death sparked outrage in the Native American community. McCoy and tribal leaders say the Swain County Department of Social Services didn't do enough to protect Aubrey. The girl was a member of the tribe whose sprawling reservation lies in parts of four counties in the picturesque Smoky Mountains in the western part of the state.

A Swain County social services worker recently pleaded guilty to ordering that records be faked during the probe of Aubrey's death and has agreed to cooperate with authorities who are continuing to investigate her co-workers. Another Swain County social services worker has been charged in connection with the cover-up.

Tribal sovereignty gives federally recognized tribes the authority to govern themselves. The Eastern Band of Cherokees has a tribal council with a chief that sets policy on the reservation, a tribal court system, and public safety and other departments.

It's not unusual for tribes to provide social services, said Terry Cross, executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association in Portland, Ore.

About 40 to 50 percent of the tribes in the lower 48 states handle their own child protection cases, he said. And every tribe has some form of child welfare program, he added. It could be something as simple as monitoring state or county programs.

"Frequently the decision whether or not to do your own child protection cases is mostly a resource issue," Cross said. "The tribes that feel like they have the resources to do it — and the philosophical underpinnings, they want to protect their own and express their sovereignty — have those child protection systems. Where tribes don't feel like they have adequate resources and have to prioritize, they don't have them."

With the Eastern Band of Cherokees, "it may be more unusual for a tribe of their size and capacity to have not done it sooner," he said.

For years, agencies in Swain, Jackson, Graham and Cherokee counties have had a contract to provide social services to the reservation. That includes investigating child abuse complaints.

Swain and Jackson counties handle the bulk of child abuse complaints on the reservation. About 26 percent of Swain County's nearly 14,000 residents are Native American, according to U.S. census figures. In neighboring Jackson County, nearly 10 percent of the more than 40,000 residents are Native American.

Officials in Swain and Jackson counties say tribal leaders have shared few details with them about the proposed agency — but they say they know enough to predict layoffs for their departments.

Swain County Administrator Kevin King said 58 percent of the county's 626 substantiated child abuse complaints last year involved families on the reservation.

He said Swain County has four full-time employees devoted to handling reservation cases. "They would lose their jobs," he said.

Others could find themselves unemployed, too, if the tribe takes over other social services, such as the food stamps program, which is administered by the county agency. King estimated that 12 of the county's 45 DSS workers could be at risk.

"At this point, we don't know the exact ramifications of a total move of DSS," he said.

But King said he's supportive of the tribe's move.

So is Jackson County DSS director Robert Cochran, though he said he's concerned about staffing complications. He said he also expects his agency to continue to play a role in helping the Native American community.

"This is not going to be a stand-alone island agency. They're going to continue to have very much daily interactions and reliance upon Swain and Jackson counties," he said.

McCoy said there will be a period of adjustment, but tribal leaders believed this was the right move in the wake of Aubrey's death.

The toddler died after she was rushed to the hospital by great-aunt Ladybird Powell, who began taking care of Aubrey in 2010, shortly before the toddler's mother reported to jail in a marijuana-trafficking case.

A state medical examiner said Aubrey died of undetermined causes but noted bruises and broken bones.

Powell, 39, of Bryson City has since pleaded guilty in the child's death and was sentenced two months ago to 12 years in prison.

An Associated Press investigation found that police and social workers were aware of reports that Aubrey was mistreated while she was staying with Powell.

Former Swain County social worker Candice Lassiter, 30, pleaded guilty Monday to three counts of forgery related to the police investigation and faces up to 45 months in prison. Another Swain County social worker, Craig Smith is charged with three counts of obstruction of justice.

Prosecutors say that after Aubrey's death, Lassiter ordered Smith, a subordinate, to falsify records to make it appear that Swain County DSS had done a thorough job investigating allegations that the girl had been abused.

David Wijewickrama, a lawyer representing Aubrey's estate, has filed two lawsuits in connection with her death, at least one of which names the county DSS as a defendant, along with Lassiter, Smith and five other current and former social workers. The lawsuit asks for more than $10,000 in damages, and accuses Swain County of not doing enough to protect Native American children.