BRYSON CITY, N.C. – In a case that stunned this North Carolina community, trials are set to begin Monday for two social service workers accused of trying to cover up the agency's role after a child's death.
Candice Lassiter, 30, is charged with three counts each of obstruction of justice and forgery related to the police investigation of 15-month-old Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn's 2011 death. Craig Smith, 28, is charged with three counts of obstruction of justice in the death of the girl, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Lassiter and Smith worked for the Department of Social Services in Swain County — where part of the Cherokees' sprawling reservation lies.
Prosecutors say that after Aubrey's death, Lassiter ordered Smith, a subordinate, to falsify records to make it appear that the department had done a thorough job investigating allegations that the girl had been abused.
The case is unusual. Social workers are rarely charged in connection with the death of a child under their supervision, said Doriane Coleman, an expert on children's law at Duke University Law School.
Even then, she said, "the usual facts are the little kid died, the social workers knew something about it and didn't take care of it."
"This is a case where social workers are accused of falsifying documents and obstructing justice after the fact. They're not being prosecuted for failure to take care of the little girl while she was alive. They're being prosecuted for ... what they did after she died to protect themselves," Coleman said.
The death of Aubrey polarized western North Carolina and sparked anger in the Native American community. She 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. Powell told doctors she had put the girl to bed and, when she checked on her a few hours later, she wasn't breathing.
A state medical examiner said Aubrey died of undetermined causes, but noted bruises and broken bones.
Some in the tribe say the Department of Social Services didn't do enough to protect her. Led by Aubrey's great-aunt, Ruth McCoy, family members and friends pushed police to investigate.
An Associated Press investigation found that police and social workers had been aware of reports that Aubrey was being mistreated while she was staying with the woman. 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.
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.
Lassiter's attorney, Zeyland McKinney, did not return telephone calls this week.
Smith resigned from the department shortly after Aubrey's death and has started a landscaping business. His attorney, Rodney Hasty, said Thursday that he couldn't discuss the case. But he said Smith is "working hard. He's put his head down and trying to get through this the best he can."
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.