Union County calls on state for probe of handcuffed child case

mgordon@charlotteobserver.comNovember 18, 2013 

— Union County officials have called for a state investigation into charges against a county child-abuse supervisor and her boyfriend after their foster son was found chained to their front porch, a dead chicken tied to his neck.

Richard Matens, director of the county’s Department of Human Services, said Monday that officials will request a probe by the N.C. Division of Social Services into all aspects of the case, as well as how the county handles adoptions, foster care and child-abuse investigations.

A key target of the probe is the 11-year-old boy’s foster mother, Wanda Sue Larson, one of the county’s top employees combating child abuse. For the past four years, Larson has headed investigations by the county’s Child Protective Services division.

Monday at the Union County Justice Center, the 57-year-old Monroe resident entered through the inmate door and listened as District Judge Steve Higdon read the charges against her. She then asked the judge for a court-appointed attorney.

Larson remained jailed Monday on charges ranging from intentional child abuse inflicting serious injury to false imprisonment and cruelty to animals. Her bond has been set at $525,000.

Because of her job, Larson also has been accused of willful failure to discharge her duty as a public figure. County officials say she has been suspended from her $54,577 job pending the outcome of the case.

Dorian Harper, Larson’s longtime unmarried partner, also faces child abuse, imprisonment and animal cruelty charges. He remained jailed Monday on $500,00 bond and has been placed on administrative leave from his job as an emergency room nurse with CMC-Union in Monroe.

Harper, 57, also asked Higdon for a court-appointed attorney. Both Larson and Harper face separate Jan. 7 court dates.

With the investigation just getting started – but with a county employee at the center of a nationwide story – Matens expressed the county’s “concerns and compassion for the children who are victims of the abuse that was recently discovered.”

Five children ages 8-14 were taken from the rural Harper-Larson home last week. All are under government care in another county, Matens said.

Four were Larson’s adoptive children. None of the five removed had been placed in the home by Union County DSS during Larson’s tenure with the agency, Matens said.

Meanwhile, one of Harper and Larson’s other adopted children, now grown, said reports of an abusive household are inaccurate.

Michael Harper-Larson, 27, said his adoptive parents were strict but loving and never abusive.

He said the crimes of which they are accused stem from their struggle to control a severely disturbed foster child. The boy destroyed property and once threatened to machete the family to death while they slept, Harper-Larson said.

He said he lived in the home with the boy for about two years, and that his parents were desperate to control him.

“Unfortunately the way they went about it was wrong,” he said. “I don’t condone it. But I can kind of see the reason behind it.”

Union County Sheriff Eddie Cathey told the Observer that he has never seen a case like this and that his department’s probe will be far-reaching. Monday afternoon, investigators were talking with biological grandmother and aunt of the three of the children taken from the home.

“I can promise you it’s not going to end here,” Cathey said. “How did these adoptions take place? Do we have safeguards in place to keep this from happening again?”

While Cathey said the four other children removed from the home showed no signs of abuse, all will receive physical and emotional examinations.

“The question of their health has got to go a lot deeper than just a quick observation,” he said.

Adoptions and foster care

On Friday morning, a Union deputy found the 11-year-old boy handcuffed to the porch of his home on Austin Road. He was dressed in a T-shirt and jeans.

The temperature in Monroe was 26 degrees between 8-9 a.m. that day. The sheriff’s department said this week that the boy was routinely handcuffed inside the house.

According to sheriff’s reports, Harper came out on the porch to talk with the deputy. During the conversation, a child opened the front door and the family’s Rottweilers chased the deputy back to his car. Harper then removed the handcuffs and took the boy inside. Harper was later arrested.

Larson, who was already at her job at DSS at the time, was accused of being “complicit in the ongoing mistreatment of the children,” according to a sheriff’s report.

Neighbors describe a household in which the parents stuck to themselves, the children were home-schooled and the family’s animals, from dogs to pot-bellied pigs to llamas, led somewhat of a free-range existence. (Cathey said after her arrest, Larson signed over all the animals to the care of the county.) Sheriff’s deputies describe an unkempt house with dog feces on the floor.

Government records indicate Larson has adopted six children, the first two in 2000. Both are grown. Michael Harper-Larson said his 22-year-old sister now lives in Arkansas.

The rest were taken from the home last week. Along with the foster child, they include an 11-year-old son adopted in 2002 and another son, now 14, adopted in 2005. The adoption decrees filed in Union County between 2000-2005 all list Larson as a single mother.

In 2009, the same year as her promotion to investigative supervisor for the county’s Child Protection Services, Larson adopted a Gaston County sister and brother, ages 8 and 9, respectively.

Those children are the first cousins of the 11-year-old boy found handcuffed to the porch. All three were taken out of the same household after an abuse complaint in 2003.

The 11-year-old’s biological mother, who lives in Charlotte, said she still has parental rights to her son and has kept in regular contact with Larson. She said she last saw her son about a year ago, and her communications with Larson have dwindled in recent months. She said her son wants to live with her, and that her family had begun discussions on bringing that about.

In 2009, Larson filed a civil complaint against the biological mother over child support for the boy. A judge ordered the mother to pay $50 a month and an additional $5 a month on $500 that was overdue.

That said, the mother described her relationship with Larson as one frequently marked by respect and mutual support. But she also said Larson regularly described her son as unruly, highly destructive to family property, and abusive to animals.

She said she’s never seen her son act this way. “If he’s so bad, give him back to me,” the mother said. “I’ll find him the help he needs.”

“I still have the utmost respect for Wanda,” she added. “She was wrong in the way she dealt with my son, but I’ve never seen her as a monster.”

Michael Larson-Harper said the dead chicken tied around the boy’s neck could have been one that he killed or which died because the boy failed to feed it.

“Dorian didn’t put a dead chicken around this child’s neck just because he felt like it,” Larson-Harper said. “I think the world needs to know that the children in that home were not abused.”

In May 2012, a neighbor of Larson and Harper called 911 after the boy turned up at her door, saying he was hungry and did not want to go home. The investigating deputy returned the child to his foster parents but referred the case to Union County DSS.

Cathey said the deputy didn’t know at the time that the child was “under the guardianship of someone who worked at DSS.” He said the agency later reported back that the case had been closed after no signs of neglect or abuse were found.

On May 29 that year, however, Larson was placed on disciplinary suspension by DSS. Asked if Larson’s punishment was connected to the DSS investigation of her household, county spokesman Brett Vines, citing state personnel laws, said he couldn’t comment.

When asked whether he had heard reports of uncontrollable behavior by the 11-year-old, Cathey said he had not.

“Certainly we’d want to know that,” he said. “But that’s not an excuse. That’s not a reason for punishing him. That’s a reason for psychological counseling.”

Researcher Maria David and staff writers Elizabeth Arriero and Karen Garloch contributed.

Gordon: 704-358-5095

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