Statement released in NC toddler beaten to death

By Dedrick Russell - bio l email

Posted by Jeff Rivenbark - email

CLEVELAND COUNTY, NC (WBTV) - Sheriff's deputies arrested a Shelby couple last weekend for the death of the mother's 2-year-old son, Jeremiah Swafford.

On Friday, the Cleveland County Department of Social Services released a statement detailing its involvement with the family.

The mother, Kathy Swafford, attended a court hearing on Monday.

The boy's aunt, Cindy Cochran, told WBTV News that Swafford didn't cry and she showed no remorse during the court proceeding.  Cochran says the mother claims she was not responsible for her son's death.

Swafford and her husband, Dwight Justice, have another hearing next month.  Both are facing murder charges.

Family members say they reported the abuse soon after Justice and Swafford starting living together. His grandmother says Jeremiah had a hand print across his face and bruises all over his body.

The little boy's funeral was held on Thursday.

On Friday, the Cleveland County Department of Social Services (DSS) released the following statement:

This written summary has been prepared and provided by the Cleveland County Department of Social Services at the request of several local media news agencies, and is rendered in accordance with N.C.G.S. 7B-2902 as a result of the death of Jeremiah Swafford as a result of suspected abuse, and the criminal charges against Kathy Lynn Swafford Justice and Dwight Stacy Justice. The District Attorney for the 27-B Judicial District has been consulted prior to the release of this written summary and he has confirmed that this release is in compliance with the restrictions of N.C.G.S. 7B-2902(b) and 2902(d).

The information contained in this written summary is specific to the involvement by the Cleveland County Department of Social Services with the family of Jeremiah Swafford, and is limited to specific information regarding the most recent child protective services investigation prior to the juvenile's death on February 14, 2009. The content of this summary is intended to comply with the criteria set forth in N.C.G.S. 7B-2902(a)(2).  The names or identities of persons who provided information related to this investigation is provided as a result of allegations that child protective reports have been made but not investigated by this agency, and have also been provided as confirmation of those reports received, whether accepted or not, and confirmation of the investigation conducted, the description of the conduct and results of this investigation.

A statement regarding the basis of the Department's decision or decisions in this matter is included at the conclusion of this summary.

WRITTEN SUMMARY PURSUANT TO N.C.G.S. 7B-2902

CPS History regarding Jeremiah Swafford- From February 2007 to September 2007, three Child Protective Services reports were received and accepted regarding Jeremiah Swafford.  These reports included allegations that the housing was below minimum standards and possible substance abuse.  The investigation of these reports did not result in the provision of on going services. There were no other reports received regarding Jeremiah Swafford until December 19, 2008.

December 19, 2008  - The Cleveland County Department of Social Services received a call from Cleveland County Communications, in reference to a call received by them from a father calling to state that his child's mother's boyfriend was abusing his child. Based on this information alone, a law enforcement officer was dispatched to the child's home, and the Cleveland County Department of Social Services was requested to call the father for more information.  The father was called by the intake worker. The father provided this information: that he had received a call from the child's great-grandmother stating that the mother's boyfriend has been beating on his son, and that he ( the father ) had been told that the child has a black eye, bruises all over him, and a hand-print on his face. The father gave the mother's address  but also stated the mother was staying with her boyfriend at a different address, which he also provided. The father stated that the grandmother told him that he needed to do something about this. The father stated that he lives in Lake Wylie, SC, and that the grandmother told him she had seen the child yesterday and that he had bruises, black eye and a hand-print on his face. He stated that he doesn't know why someone had not called DSS.  The father also stated that child's mother had contacted him about six weeks ago regarding signing over his parental rights and asking for the child to be adopted. He stated that he had not seen his child in a couple of weeks, but that he was supposed to meet with the mother on Christmas Day.

Following the conversation with the father, a Sheriff's Deputy called into the Cleveland County Department of Social Services and reported that he had just left the child's residence and that he saw Jeremiah and that the child was fine and had no marks or bruises whatsoever.  The Cleveland County Sheriff's Deputy reported that Jeremiah was asleep, and that he had talked to the child's mother and the mother's boyfriend and the mother stated that her grandmother was trying to get custody of the child.

That on the basis of the Deputy's observation of the child, this report was screened out after consultation with a supervisor and was not accepted for investigation of abuse or neglect.  Mr. Thomas was notified by mail on December 22, 2008 of the Department's decision to not accept the report for further investigation and was advised as to how he could request additional agency review of this decision.  There has been no further contact from Mr. Thomas.

There were no other calls or reports made to the Cleveland County Department of Social Services or to Cleveland County Communications regarding suspected abuse or neglect of Jeremiah prior to December 19, 2008 and no calls or reports were made between December 19, 2008 until December 30, 2008.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008 - The next call to the Cleveland County Department of Social Services came into the After Hour's unit on the evening of December 30, 2008, after law enforcement requested that a social worker come to Cleveland Regional Medical Center.  On that night, the Cleveland County Department of Social Services responded to a report that Jeremiah was at Cleveland Regional Medical Center with bruises and taser marks on his body.  The report was made by the Cleveland County Department of Social Services in response to a 911 call by the step-mother/maternal great-grandmother Betty Mayes Thomas.  Ms. Thomas is the maternal great-grandmother of Jeremiah and that she is married to James Danny Thomas, the biological father.

Social Worker, Allen responded to the Cleveland Regional Medical Center and met with Sheriff's Department officers. She observed Jeremiah sitting on a hospital bed dressed in a hospital gown and playing with the officers. The child was observed by the social worker to be healthy and in a good mood. He was also playing with his cousins. He was not crying. An interview with Jeremiah was attempted, but he would only tell the social worker his name.

Social Worker Allen spoke with Betty Thomas, who introduced herself as Jeremiah's maternal great-grandmother and step-mother.  She stated that he had been in the home of his maternal grandmother, Kathy Jean Swafford, since Sunday ( December 28 ) and that the grandmother had brought him to her home for a couple of hours on Monday night ( December 29 ), and that he was asleep so she did not change his clothes or diaper. Ms. Thomas said that she worked on Tuesday and got off work at 1:00 pm. Upon her arrival at home, she had a message from her daughter Cindy Cochran to call her immediately. Ms. Thomas said she called Ms. Cochran, who told her that she had seen Jeremiah at her daughter, LaDonna Garren's home, and that she (Cindy Cochran) had observed a bruise on the child's penis. Ms. Thomas said that Cindy and LaDonna told her Jeremiah was holding his penis and saying "Stacy mean, Stacy mean." She also stated that LaDonna was keeping the child for his maternal grandmother, Kathy Jean, while she worked in Forest City. Ms. Thomas said that when she got the child, she called the grandmother Kathy Jean and said she was calling an ambulance and taking him to the hospital.

Betty Thomas also stated that she did not know how true this was, but that the mother had told LaDonna that she had "stood by laughing while Stacy tased" the child. Ms. Thomas said she knew that the mother owned a taser. Ms. Thomas said she was married to the child's father, James Danny Thomas, but that she had kicked him out 15 months ago for cheating on her and that she did not know where he was or how to contact him.  Ms. Thomas also said she had seen marks and bruises on Jeremiah before and that she refused to stand by and let this baby be abused.

Social Worker Allen next spoke to the attending Emergency Room physician.  The ER physician advised that a skeletal x-ray exam had been completed and that there were no injuries. The ER physician further stated that there was no clear indication as to the cause of the bruising to the child's penis, but that the child might have injured himself playing or could possibly have been hit by someone.

Social Worker Allen next spoke to the maternal grandmother, Kathy Jean Swafford, who stated that the mother brings Jeremiah to stay with her whenever she doesn't want to be bothered with him. Kathy Jean Swafford stated that she had not seen any marks or bruises on the child that weekend, but that she has seen marks or bruises on him in the past and that the mother always says he fell or bumped into something.

Social Worker Allen then left Cleveland Regional Medical Center and went with Sheriff's deputies to the home of the mother and her boyfriend. Social Worker Allen spoke with the eight-year-old child of Stacy Justice. This child denied seeing his father or the mother hit Jeremiah.

Social Worker Allen next spoke with Jeremiah's mother, Kathy Lynn Swafford. The mother was crying and asking where her son was. Ms. Allen explained the reason for her visit. The mother said this was only happening because her mother was trying to get custody of Jeremiah. She said that she had allowed her mother to have Jeremiah on Sunday ( December 28 ) and that she had been calling her mother all day trying to get him back.

Kathy Lynn Swafford told Social Worker Allen that Jeremiah had been in Kings Mountain Hospital on November 20 because he was dehydrated and that a catheter had been inserted into his penis. She stated that when the catheter was removed, it caused a bruise. The mother had taken Jeremiah to the doctor following this incident and had been given medication, which she had been applying to the penis.  She denied any other injuries to Jeremiah, and denied that he had a black eye or hand-print on his face.  The mother denied drug use and volunteered to take a drug test. The mother gave Ms. Allen the names of Jeremiah's doctors, and also stated that she had taken him for a follow-up visit and had another appointment scheduled for January 9, 2009. She provided the names and phone numbers of references. She admitted owning a taser, but denied using it.

Social Worker Allen next spoke to Stacy Justice, the mother's boyfriend.  He stated that he lived at this residence with his son, but that Kathy Lynn Swafford and Jeremiah had recently been staying with him due to her apartment at Ramblewood being broken into. Mr. Justice denied any knowledge of mark or bruises on Jeremiah at the time he last saw him prior to going to his grandmother's house on Sunday. He said he had helped the mother bathe Jeremiah on that Sunday. He denied any physical or corporal punishment of Jereminah, and said he had never seen Jeremiah with a black eye or hand-print. Mr. Justice also discussed Jeremiah's hospital treatment on November 20 and the injury to the penis from the catheter.

Following a telephone conversation with the Social Work Supervisor on call that evening, social Worker Allen called Cleveland Regional Medical Center and advised the nurse that Jeremiah could be released to his mother.

December 31, 2008.  The following day, the case was assigned to Social Worker Williams.  Ms. Williams made a visit that day to the home of Jeremiah and his mother, Mr. Justice and his son.  The mother again relayed the information to Ms. Williams regarding the catheter. Social Worker Williams observed Jeremiah to be free from any marks, bruises or injuries, except for the bruising on his penis.  Jeremiah did not respond to her question if someone had hurt him. Jeremiah was observed by the social worker to be playing and jumping on Mr. Justice's lap.

January 5, 2009 -  On this day, the maternal great-aunt of Jeremiah, Cindy Cochran, was in the offices of the Cleveland County Department of Social Services on an unrelated matter. During a conversation with a worker, Ms. Cochran stated that she was concerned for Jeremiah's safety.  The worker immediately walked Ms. Cochran to the office of Williams, and an interview was conducted at that time. Ms. Cochran stated to Social Worker Williams that it had been her daughter who had discovered the bruise on Jeremiah's penis, and that she had also seen it and had called the grandmother to come over. Ms. Cochran described the penis as being raw and black and blue. She also said that this could not have been caused by a catheter like his mother was claiming. Ms. Cochran said she had personally observed Jeremiah with a black eye in the past and that she had seen the mother slap him and grab him by his throat and throw him. She stated that other people had seen these things as well.

Ms. Cochran also stated that on the night Jeremiah was taken to the hospital that an incident had occurred at the home of Tim Garren in which Stacy Justice and Kathy Lynn Swafford had been fighting and that they had been picked up by the Cherryville Police for questioning.  Ms. Cochran also said she had seen marks on Jeremiah's feet that looked like taser marks and that she had heard that his mother used a taser to torture him. She said the abuse had been going on for a while. She said she had never met Stacy Justice, whom she called Dwight. She provided the names and phone numbers of several references, including Mr. Garren.

Social Worker Williams called one of these references by telephone while Ms. Cochran was in her office. This person confirmed the incident involving Mr. Justice and Ms. Swafford and also said that the Cherryville Police had picked them up for questioning.

That Social Worker Williams requested 911 logs from the Cherryville Police and the Cleveland County Sheriff's Department for the date of December 30, 2008 for both the residences of Tim Garren and Dwight Justice. According to these records, no calls were made from either of these residences and no responses by law enforcement to either residence.

On January 5, 2009, Social Worker Williams spoke by telephone to the maternal great-grandfather, the former husband of Betty Thomas. Mr. Mayes stated that he had no concerns for the well-being of Jeremiah and no concerns for either the mother or her boyfriend.

On January 6, 2009, Ms. Williams left a voicemail message for another reference provided by the mother's boyfriend and requested medical records for Jeremiah. She also requested and received 911 call logs from the residence of the mother.

On January 7, 2009, Ms. Williams requested medical records from Jeremiah's pediatrician.

On January 8, 2009, the Cleveland County Department of Social Services received copies  of Jeremiah's medical records from Cleveland Regional Hospital. On this day, she also left a voice mail for Det. T.O. Curry with the sheriff's department requesting the status of his criminal investigation, and she requested the mother's medical records from her doctor. She also attempted to call the same reference of Mr. Justice she had called on January 6.

On January 8, 2009, Social Worker Williams made another visit to the home of Jeremiah.  The mother again denied any domestic violence between herself and Mr. Justice, denied using a taser on Jeremiah and denied the existence of any black eyes or other bruises or marks. Ms. Swafford did provide some additional medical information regarding some small circular scars on his body resulting from a prior case of MRSA.  The social worker observed Jeremiah and saw no marks or bruises, Jeremiah appeared to be happy and playful and interacting with his mother in a positive manner.  Mr. Justice and Ms. Swafford agreed to cooperate with the Department's investigation.

January 8, 2009 -   The mother, Kathy Lynn Swafford, also agreed to submit to a drug test. She submitted to a 10-panel urine test and also a 10-panel hair follicle test, which would indicate drug use within the past 90 days. Both tests were negative for all substances.

On January 9 and 13, 2009, Social Worker Williams made additional requests for medical records from Cleveland Regional Hospital, Kings Mountain Hospital and Gaston Memorial Hospital. Records were received from Kings Mountain and Cleveland Regional. Gaston Memorial responded that they had no records for the juvenile.

January 13, 2009 - The juvenile was brought by his mother to his pediatrician's office for treatment of a reported stomach virus. The pediatrician on that day wrote a written statement that Jeremiah had been often seen for medical or physical treatment and that there had never been any indications of physical abuse or neglect.

January 14, 2009 - A request for a "well check" by law enforcement on Jeremiah was made to Cleveland County Communications.  The caller only gave her name as Donna. She also requested that a Social Worker return her call.  Social Worker Allen attempted to return the call and the number provided by the caller was not in service. A sheriff's deputy called DSS on this day regarding the "well-check" request and was advised by Social Worker Allen that DSS was involved with this family.

January 15, 2009 -   Social Worker Williams made a home visit to Jeremiah's home at the request of Nicole Allen and again observed no marks or bruises on the child.

The mother told the social worker during this visit about Jeremiah's trip to the doctor's office on the 13th.

January 22, 2009 -  Social Worker Williams made another visit to the juvenile's home. No marks or bruises on the juvenile were observed.

January 26, 2009  - Social Worker Williams met with her supervisor to discuss closing the investigation as unsubstantiated. The decision was made on that day to hold the case open for a little longer in order to receive confirmation from Law Enforcement that their investigation of the December 30, 2008 report was also being closed.

During this time period, the Social Worker and supervisors received and reviewed the various medical records and other documentation regarding the December 30, 2008 report.

The following information was received and considered as the basis for the Department's decision to close this investigation as unsubstantiated:

  • 1) Medical records of Jeremiah's treatment at the Kings Mountain Hospital on November 20, 2008 - which confirmed the mother's report of treatment on that day.
  • 2) Medical records of Jeremiah's follow-up visit to the Shelby Children's Clinic on November 21, 2008, which reference a "Penile Trauma."
  • 3) Medical records of Jeremiah's visit to Cleveland Urological on November 25, 2008 which also reference treatment of "penile trauma." These medical records provide detail relating to the treatment at Kings Mountain Hospital and a catheterization that "may have been removed traumatically," and significant ecchymosis of his penis."
  • 4) Medical records of Cleveland Regional Hospital dated November 30, 2008 which indicate that the mother brought Jeremiah to the Emergency Room due to vomiting, diarrhea and fever. The penile injury is noted by the treating physician and some swelling is observed that evening. Medication is prescribed to help with the pain and low-grade fever. Jeremiah is observed to be playful and happy.
  • 5) Medical records of Jeremiah's visit to Shelby Children's Clinic on December 1, 2008 as a follow-up to the previous night's emergency room visit.
  • 6) Additional medical records from 2007 confirm the mother's statement about Jeremiah's treatment for MRSA.
  • 7) Medical Records from the December 30, 2008 Emergency room treatment at Cleveland Regional Medical Center. Among the information considered by the Department are the doctor's descriptions on that night of Jeremiah as a "well-developed, well-nourished" child. The only physical injuries noted other than the penile bruising are an "abrasion to the left knee in the process of healing;" "abrasion to the right eye brow in process of healing;" "circular red area in the middle of the sole" of the left foot; and "spider type veins" on the back. The long bone scan requested for the juvenile that evening revealed no injuries.
  • 8) Medical Records of the Shelby Children's Clinic on January 13, 2009 for treatment of vomiting. No concerns of physical abuse.
  • 9) Medical Records of January 31, 2009 from Kings Mountain Hospital regarding the mother bringing Jeremiah in for treatment of a sore throat and runny nose. A "resolving facial bruise" under the left eye is noted by the physician.
  • 10) Receipt of verification by the Cleveland County Sheriff's Department that they were closing their investigation of the December 30, 2008 report of physical abuse.
  • 11) Statements made by law enforcement officers that reports of taser or stun gun use on Jeremiah were considered to be unfounded due to lack of visible injury and the likelihood that the use of such a weapon on a child of this size would have likely resulted in death.
  • 12) Following the December 30, 2008 report, Jeremiah was seen by a social worker from the Cleveland County Department of Social Services on at least four separate occasions through January 22, 2009 and no marks bruises or other injuries were observed.
  • 13) Non-specific allegations of the mother's substance abuse were unfounded based upon the January 8, 2009 urine and hair follicle negative drug tests. No other additional or credible information was received by the Department regarding substance abuse.
  • 14) Conflicting and inconsistent information provided by family members on the night of December 30, 2008.
  • 15) The lack of any specific information or evidence provided by family members to support their claims of on-going physical abuse of Jeremiah.
  • 16) December 30, 2008 Statements by the maternal great-grandmother/step-mother; the maternal grandmother; and subsequent statements by the maternal great-aunt and her daughter all confirmed that Jeremiah had been in their collective care and supervision for at least two days prior to the report of suspected abuse and prior to their taking Jeremiah to the Emergency room.

The decision by the Cleveland County Department of Social Services to close its investigation of the December 30, 2008 report of physical abuse had not been formally rendered prior to the February 13, 2009 report and subsequent death of Jeremiah Swafford. However, this report would have been determined "unsubstantiated"  and the investigation closed based upon the inconsistency of reports and allegations made by the various family members interviewed; the inconsistency of these reports in comparison to existing medical records, in particular the well-documented treatment of the juvenile for the penile injury; the subsequent and frequent requests for treatment by the mother of the juvenile by various medical personnel and the fact that other than minor abrasions, no medical professional had observed or diagnosed any concerns of physical abuse of this child.

There were no other reports or calls regarding this juvenile until the February 13, 2009 report for the incident that resulted in the fatality.

The Cleveland County Department of Social Services specifically denies the recent reports of family members that they have made multiple reports of abuse or requests for assistance regarding Jeremiah Swafford.  All incoming calls to the Cleveland County Department of Social Services reporting child abuse and neglect are logged and screened.  Other than those calls referenced in this summary, there have been no calls, reports or requests for assistance. Similarly, a review of county 911 calls has been made of all known addresses or telephone numbers of those persons now claiming to have made reports or requests for help, and there are no records of such calls except as referenced in this summary.

Karen Ellis

Director