Man charged in handcuff case loses his job

mgordon@charlotteobserver.comNovember 26, 2013 

Dorian Harper, the Monroe man charged with child abuse after a boy under his care was found bound to a porch with a dead chicken tied around his neck, has been fired from his job as an emergency room nurse.

Harper, 57, no longer works at Carolinas Medial Center-Union, said Kevin McCarthy, a spokesman for Carolinas HealthCare System, which owns the Monroe facility. McCarthy declined to give other details Tuesday.

Harper was arrested Nov. 7. A Union County sheriff’s deputy found an 11-year-old handcuffed to the porch of a farmhouse owned by Harper and Wanda Lawson, a former child-abuse investigative supervisor for the county’s Department of Social Services. Lawson was not at the house when the boy was found.

DSS fired Lawson last week, accusing her of violating her public duties to protect children, including the ones in her home. In his firing letter to Lawson, Richard Matens, the county’s executive director of Human Services, described the conditions at the home “appalling.”

The boy handcuffed to the porch was wearing a T-shirt and jeans when he was found. Temperatures were in the mid-20s at the time.

Authorities removed five children, ages 7-14, from the home. Four of those children had been adopted by Lawson. Harper and Lawson were the 11-year-old’s legal guardians. All five children remain under the care of the Davidson County DSS and were interviewed by investigators last week.

The incident has caused an international sensation and set off several investigations on how Union and Gaston counties, which both placed children in the Harper/Lawson home, operate their foster care and adoption programs.

Meanwhile, Union County Sheriff Eddie Cathey said Tuesday that the 3-week-old case continues to draw up to 10 members of his staff each day. Cathey said he and his department leaders were to meet Tuesday afternoon, with the goal of possibly releasing a report after Thanksgiving.

Cathey said the focus remains broad, including how all five children in the house were treated.

“We’re looking at the events of the morning, the events of the past, all those things that led up to our officer finding that boy,” he said.

Harper and Lawson, who were licensed foster parents for more than a decade, appear to have been given custody of the 11-year-old seven or eight years ago.

Michael Harper-Lawson, 27, an adopted son of Lawson who lives in South Carolina, says he lived under the same roof with the 11-year-old for about two years. He described the boy as emotionally disturbed, abusive to the family’s animals and prone to threats.

Harper-Lawson and relatives of the boy’s biological family speculate that the child was forced to wear the dead chicken because he had been accused of killing it.

The boy’s biological mother, who lives in Charlotte, said Lawson often blamed her son for “repeatedly” killing animals. She said Lawson once sent her a photograph of her son holding up a dead turkey that Lawson said he had killed. She said her son, who was crying in the photo, later told her he didn’t do it.

“I told Wanda, ‘If he’s such a bad kid and he’s killing all these animals, why is he still in your house? Why isn’t he getting help?’”

Day-to-day supervision

Harper and Lawson received their foster home license in 1998. Like all applicants, they had to take 30 hours of training and prove they could support themselves without relying on the monthly foster payments.

Both Lawson and Harper underwent background checks. Their house had to be inspected for safety, and every child had to have a bed.

Union County DSS oversaw the foster home until 2003; Gaston County DSS took over supervision until the couple’s license expired in 2010.

According to state records, foster care monthly payments today range from $475 to $634 a child, depending on age. Children adopted through the state program qualify for the same payments.

In 1998, Union County placed Michael Harper-Lawson and his sister under the couple’s care. Lawson adopted them two years later. Harper’s name doesn’t appear on the adoption decree; Lawson is listed as a single mother.

A total of four other kids placed in the home as foster children eventually were adopted by Lawson in 2002, 2005 and 2009. Michael Harper-Lawson said at least six other foster kids came into the home while he lived there. They were either returned to their families or DSS custody.

According to state law, DSS inspectors must make monthly visits to foster homes to check on children and quarterly inspections to ensure foster homes are in proper condition.

According to the state, the last foster child left the Harper/Lawson home in May 2009. The couple’s foster license expired in December 2010.

In the 12 years Lawson and Harper served as foster parents, the state said “no adverse licensing actions occurred.”

The Observer asked Union and Gaston counties for a range of information pertaining to the case, from the number of foster children placed in the home to DSS reports from any visits.

Union spokesman Brett Vines said much of the information requested is covered under the state’s privacy laws pertaining to foster care and adoptions.

Asked if Union County DSS had any indication that Harper and Lawson sought psychological help for the boy or requested that he be removed from their home, Vines said the agency would not be in the position to know.

Gaston County Health and Human Services spokeswoman Shannon Clubb said her agency had sent the Observer’s request to the attorney general’s office to see what the county could make available. She said she had not heard back by late Tuesday afternoon.

Meanwhile, Union leaders pledged to take a stronger hand in overseeing the county’s DSS.

“No one is more outraged about this than the board of county commissioners,” said Jonathan Thomas, a member of the county’s governing board, in a video placed on You Tube.

Next month, he said, the commission will vote to dissolve a DSS advisory board set up to serve as a liaison between commissioners and DSS. The goal: to give commissioners closer day-to-day links to the agency’s operation.


Gordon: 704-358-5095

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