DSS dropped earlier complaint against Larson

abell@charlotteobserver.com mgordon@charlotteobserver.comNovember 20, 2013 

A 2012 sheriff’s department complaint involving a Union County boy found begging for food at a neighbor’s home was dismissed by the local Department of Social Services after it says it failed to find sufficient signs of abuse or neglect.

That complaint involved Wanda Larson, one of the agency’s top child-protection supervisors, and the boy who was under her legal care.

Last Friday, Larson and her longtime boyfriend were arrested after the youth, now 11, was found handcuffed to their front porch, a dead chicken tied around his neck. She and Dorian Harper, 57, remained jailed Wednesday on child abuse and related charges.

The boy appears to have been under the couple’s legal guardianship. He and four other children ages 8-14 adopted by Larson were removed from the Austin Road home last week and placed in the custody of another county’s DSS.

The story has drawn a worldwide audience. Now it is raising questions about whether the Union DSS thoroughly investigated one of its own.

On Dec. 21, 2012, the boy was the subject of a 911 call after he turned up at a neighbor’s house begging for food and saying he didn’t know where he lived.

A deputy, who had visited the Larson/Harper home on a 911 call a year earlier, returned the boy to their custody. But that night, the deputy filed a complaint with DSS, Union County Sheriff Eddie Cathey said Wednesday.

The response from the DSS investigator came back Dec. 27. The deputy’s complaint “does not meet statutory definition of abuse, neglect or dependency,” the investigator concluded, and a fuller review was not warranted.

At the time of her arrest, Larson was an investigative supervisor for DSS with a staff of five. Her professional relationship with the DSS worker who handled the 2012 complaint at her home was not clear Wednesday.

Richard Matens, executive director of the county’s human services department, which oversees DSS, said the investigator followed “all state protocols” in the complaint involving Larson.

The initial screening of any child protective services case is handled by the county, Matens said. If that review determines a need for further investigation – and it would be a conflict of interest for the county to handle that claim – the case is sent to another county, he said.

Matens said he could not comment further on specifics about the December case.

A child-protection legal expert in Charlotte says that with Larson involved, Union DSS should have taken more steps in 2012 to distance itself from the appearance of a conflict of interest.

“If they screened it or investigated it themselves, that would be a big conflict,” said Robert McCarter, managing attorney for the Council of Children’s Rights in Charlotte.

McCarter, the onetime attorney for Mecklenburg’s DSS, said if his former agency “were to learn of a situation involving one of their supervisors, then Gaston or Iredell or some other county would come here to do the screening and the investigation. Then you’d have some protection against an open conflict.”

Authorities made at least two other visits to the Larson/Harper home in the past three years.

On Aug. 25, 2011, the Union County Sheriff’s Office responded to a 911 simple assault call. Cathey said it involved Harper and an older adopted child. Cathey said the incident was minor and no charges were filed.

On Dec. 20 of that year, Cathey said 911 received the last of a series of hang-up calls from the home and decided to visit. None of the children would talk to the deputy, he said, and the parents attributed the 911 calls to pranks by their kids. There were no signs of problems, Cathey said. “Our hands were pretty well tied.”

Union County authorities now hope to interview the five children this week. Because the children are under the care of another county, which is unnamed, Union officials said they could not say whether the children remain together or are in different homes.

Authorities also are working to establish a fund to benefit the children, Cathey said, although those plans are not finalized. He said his office has received numerous inquiries about people interested in helping the children.

On Tuesday, the state Division of Social Services agreed to the county’s request to review how Union handles child-welfare cases. The state DSS, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, also will examine records of all of the children placed under Larson and Harper’s care.

Union County also asked another county to look at Larson’s arrest and alleged abuse, Matens said. He said it is standard procedure to get another county involved when there is a perceived conflict.

Larson was suspended from her $54,577 a year county job, and Harper was placed on administrative leave from his job as an emergency room nurse at Carolinas Medical Center-Union in Monroe.

Larson and Harper remain in Union County Jail on bonds of $525,000 and $500,000, respectively. Their next court appearance is scheduled for Jan. 7.

Bell: 704-358-5696;

Twitter: @abell Gordon: 704-358-5095

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