CHARLOTTE, N.C. – A North Carolina social worker accused of failing to take action on complaints that could have saved a 15-month-old girl's life has returned to her job even though she's still facing criminal charges in the case.
Candice Lassiter, 28, returned to her job Monday. She was charged in February with three counts each of obstruction of justice and forgery related to the investigation of Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn's death.
Lassiter answered a call at the Swain County Department of Social Services office in Bryson City on Thursday, but declined to discuss the circumstances surrounding her return.
"I just can't talk about it," she said.
Repeated telephone messages left for the agency's interim director, Jerry Smith, were not immediately returned Thursday. DSS board members refused to comment, referring all calls to DSS attorney Justin Green.
Green confirmed that Lassiter returned after an agency investigation. But he said by law he couldn't disclose details about the investigation or why officials allowed her to return while her case is pending.
Littlejohn's great-aunt, Ruth McCoy, has repeatedly pushed for justice in the case along with the little girl's mother, Jasmine Littlejohn.
McCoy, a realty officer for the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs who works in a building that also houses several DSS officials, said she discovered this week that Lassiter had returned to work when she picked up a copy of a DSS newsletter from a table in the hallway.
"Social Worker Candice Lassiter will return to work today in the Adult and Children Services Unit," the newsletter announcement says. "We all welcome her back to the Agency."
McCoy said Aubrey's family is outraged.
"That was like a slap in the face to the family," she said. "Aubrey is already gone. She will never return and then they bring this woman who was involved in her death back to work in front of us? It's wrong."
This is the latest development in a case that has stunned and polarized western North Carolina, and sparked anger in the Native American community. Aubrey was a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, some of whom claim that the Swain County DSS did not do enough to protect Aubrey and other Native American children. Part of the Cherokees' sprawling reservation lies in Swain County.
Another great-aunt of Aubrey, Ladybird Powell, was arrested and charged with second-degree murder in January — a year after the toddler's death. Powell had begun taking care of Aubrey shortly before Jasmine Littlejohn reported to jail in April 2010 to await trial in a marijuana-trafficking case. Littlejohn was in jail when her daughter died.
An Associated Press investigation found that police and social workers had been aware of reports Aubrey was being mistreated while she was staying with Powell.
McCoy alleges Lassiter was one of the social workers whom police escorted to Powell's home on the night of Nov. 9, 2010 to investigate a complaint that an 11-year-old boy was living in a trailer with drugs and no heat.
They removed the boy, placing him in McCoy's custody, but let Aubrey stay. The heat was off because the power bill wasn't paid.
"I begged her (Lassiter) to take Aubrey, but she wouldn't listen," McCoy said.
The girl died Jan. 10, 2011, after Powell rushed her to the emergency room. When Swain County investigators looked into the case, they discovered the agency had at least three reports of neglect or abuse regarding Aubrey.
Investigators later found pages missing from written reports on the case.
Prosecutors say that after Aubrey's death, Lassiter ordered a subordinate, Craig Smith, to falsify records to make it appear that the department had done a thorough job investigating allegations that Aubrey was being abused.
Smith, also charged with obstruction of justice, resigned from the agency last year. Lassiter and three other DSS workers were suspended with pay. Tammy Cagle, the agency's director at the time, was fired for what county officials said were unrelated reasons.
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 and six 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.
That has resonated with the Cherokees. McCoy said they have formed a committee, of which she is a member, to create a Cherokee-run DSS system for the reservation.
"We need to make a change for our children's safety," she said.