Union County abuse investigation expands to include 36 former foster children

abell@charlotteobserver.comJanuary 16, 2014 

— Authorities investigating a Union County couple charged with abusing one boy have expanded their probe to determine whether 35 other children may have been abused or witnessed abuse.

All 36 children were under the foster care of Wanda Larson and Dorian Harper at some point over a 12-year period, court records show.

In a case generating international coverage, Larson and her longtime boyfriend Harper were arrested in November after authorities found an 11-year-old boy handcuffed to their porch with a dead chicken tied around his neck. Larson, who at the time was a Union County child protective services supervisor, was the boy’s legal guardian.

Last month, Superior Court Judge Chris Braggordered the state Division of Social Services and Union and Gaston counties to provide investigators with records for the 36 children placed in Larson and Harper’s home between 1998 and 2010.

Union County prosecutors had filed a motion seeking those records.

In his order, Bragg agreed with prosecutors that “based on the allegations of child abuse already disclosed, it is not unreasonable to believe” any or all of the 36 children may have been victims of abuse or witnessed abuse of other children.

This is the first time the total number of children the couple had fostered has been disclosed.

Because Larson was a DSS supervisor, the case has led to a review of Union’s DSS by North Carolina human services officials as well as a call from a state senator for the state to temporarily take over the agency.

Interviewing the children

When the couple were arrested, authorities removed the 11-year-old and four other children from Larson and Harper’s Monroe-area home. Larson had adopted the four other children, ages 7 to 14.

Investigators have interviewed 10 to 15 children so far, Union County Sheriff Eddie Cathey said Thursday. Some were in North Carolina and others were out of state.

Cathey declined to discuss what investigators learned.

The duration of foster placements apparently ranged from less than a week to months at a time or longer, District Attorney Trey Robison said. Foster parents provide temporary homes for children displaced by abuse, dependency or neglect.

Harper’s court-appointed attorney, Randolph Lee of Monroe, declined to comment on Bragg’s order because he had not seen it.

“My client contests all of the charges against him. (He) contends he is innocent,” Lee said.

Larson’s court-appointed attorney, Bob Leas of Monroe, could not be reached for comment.

Court appearance set for Feb. 4

The couple’s next court appearance is in Union County Superior Court, scheduled for Feb. 4. They remain in Union County jail, under $520,000 bond for Larson and $500,000 bond for Harper.

After her arrest, Larson was fired by the county. Harper, an emergency room nurse at a Monroe hospital, also lost his job.

Larson and Harper, both 57, were indicted by a grand jury in December on charges including felony child abuse, maiming and false imprisonment.

The indictment detailed alleged abuse the 11-year-old suffered between August and November, which included being chained to a steel railroad track in his room; having his face burned with an electrical wire near his eye; and getting his face cut with a knife, which left a 2-inch scar.

Larson and Harper’s home was licensed for foster care by Union County DSS from December 1998 through mid-September 2003, and then by Gaston County DSS until December 2010. The state has said there were no “adverse licensing actions” taken while the couple were licensed for foster care.

The 11-year-old originally was placed in the home as a foster child by Gaston County, prosecutors said in their motion. The boy’s mother told the Observer he was about 3 at the time.

One of the children whom the couple later adopted, Michael Harper-Larson, now 27, told the Observer in November that his parents were strict but loving and never abusive. He could not be reached Thursday.

The five children taken from the home remain in the care of Davidson County DSS; the children are happy and doing well, said Cathey, the Union County sheriff.

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

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