State to review Union County DSS work

mgordon@charlotteobserver.com abell@charlotteobserver.comNovember 19, 2013 

Wanda Sue Larson, left, and Dorian Lee Harper

Wanda Sue Larson, left, and Dorian Lee Harper

State officials announced Tuesday that they will examine how Union County handles child-welfare cases after a boy living with a county child-protection supervisor and her boyfriend was handcuffed to a porch with a dead chicken tied to his neck.

Wayne Black, director of the Division of Social Services in the state Department of Health and Human Services, said the agency will review the practices of the Union County DSS. It will also study records of all the children placed under the care of Wanda Larson and Dorian Harper of Monroe.

Larson and Harper face child abuse and other charges after a deputy discovered a child living with the couple chained to the front porch in freezing conditions Friday morning.

Larson, a child-protection investigations supervisor with the Union County DSS, also has been charged with failing to do her job as a public employee. She has been suspended from her job and is jailed on $525,000 bond. Harper, her longtime partner, is jailed on $500,000 bond and has been put on administrative leave from his nursing job at CMC-Union.

Both face Jan. 7 court hearings.

The case has quickly drawn an international audience while generating questions on how children placed in homes by government agencies are protected.

Union County requested the state probe of the case and how county employees handle adoptions, foster care and child protection.

Union County Sheriff Eddie Cathey said his office’s investigation, though just underway, has “ballooned and gone everywhere. Calls are coming out of the woodwork.”

Asked if that involved Larson and Harper’s treatment of the child, or how Larson and the county DSS did their jobs, Cathey said, “All of the above.” He did not offer specifics.

Meanwhile, Union officials have asked another North Carolina county to “take a micro view of the Larson incident,” County Manager Cindy Coto said. The goal, she said, is “to ensure the quality of our procedures are the highest possible.” It is not a common request for the county to make, Coto said.

When asked if there were warning signs at the Larson-Harper home that the county may have missed, officials declined comment, citing the investigation.

Search warrants and related documents in the Union County case have been sealed at the request of the District Attorney’s office. In court documents, the office said the warrants and affidavits identified the minors and included “details about alleged acts involving” them.

Larson has adopted six children through DSS in Gaston and Union counties since 2000. According to the state, she and Harper were licensed foster parents in both counties until December 2010.

The Sheriff’s Office removed five children, ages 8-14, from the home on Friday. They include four children adopted by Larson and the 11-year-old found on the porch. Harper was arrested at the house; Larson was arrested later in the day.

DHHS spokeswoman Julie Henry said the agency is blocked by law from discussing individual cases of children.

Up to now, authorities described the 11-year-old as a foster child. But Black said no foster children have been in the Larson-Harper home since May 2009. Instead, the boy appears to have been placed under the legal guardianship of the couple, which means he would not be under DSS oversight.

His biological mother told the Observer this week that he was removed from her care as part of a child-abuse case that involved other children living in their Gaston County home. The mother, who lives in Charlotte, said that while her son has been with Larson and Harper since he was about 3, she has retained her parental rights and hopes to be reunited with the boy at some point in the future.

DSS regularly visits children under foster care. But no home checks occur in cases of adoptions or legal guardianships unless requested by the families or ordered by a judge.

In May 2012, the Sheriff’s Office referred a complaint to DSS over the treatment of the 11-year-old after he turned up at a neighbor’s house, asking for food and saying he didn’t want to go home. Cathey said DSS reported back that no signs of abuse or neglect were found. That same month, however, Larson was suspended for disciplinary reasons at DSS. When asked if the two events were connected, county spokesman Brett Vines declined comment.

Larson, 57, joined the county DSS in 2003. Before her arrest, she earned $54,577 a year and supervised five employees. Cathey said she is cooperating with the investigation.

She and Larson bought their home on Austin Road in 1999. County records indicate the buildings and land are valued at $201,440.

Before she came to Union County, Larson was a licensed nurse in Alaska and Iowa. According to records, she surrendered her Alaska license for “unprofessional conduct” reasons in 1990.

In May 2012, she submitted forms to start a home school for the children under her care. She called it “Eclectic Primer School.”

Staff researcher Maria David and staff writer Ann Doss Helms contributed.

Gordon: 704-358-5095 Bell: 704-358-5696; Twitter: @abell

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