Union County human services board targeted for elimination in wake of child abuse case

abell@charlotteobserver.comDecember 4, 2013 

As Union County commissioners move to abolish a human services board, some members claim they are being made out to be scapegoats following a high-profile child abuse case involving a social services worker.

Last month, a Union County sheriff’s deputy found an 11-year-old boy handcuffed to the porch of a Monroe-area farmhouse with a dead chicken tied around his neck.

Authorities arrested homeowners Dorian Harper and longtime girlfriend Wanda Larson, a child protective services supervisor at the county Department of Social Services who has since been fired. The couple had legal guardianship of the boy, and Larson had adopted four other children ages 7 to 14 who lived at the home. The children have been removed from the home.

On Monday night, commissioners unanimously voted to proceed with eliminating the Consolidated Human Services Board. A public hearing is set for Jan. 6.

The consolidated board is composed of professionals in health and human services, as well as people who use those services. The mainly advisory board serves as the policy-making, rule-making and administrative board of the county’s human services agency.

Commissioner Jonathan Thomas, who sits on the consolidated board, said his plan to abolish the board would allow commissioners to move faster in adopting whatever changes may be suggested by an ongoing state review of DSS operations. He said it also would make clear that commissioners are taking responsibility for “cleaning up this mess.”

But consolidated board chairwoman Evelyn Blackley dismissed such claims. “The recommendation to disband this board implies blame, which is extremely insulting and is nothing more than a political game utilizing the safety of our children as a platform,” she said at the meeting.

In an interview Wednesday, Blackley, a pharmacist, said her board was being made out to be scapegoats even though they are not involved in day-to-day operations at DSS. Disbanding the group will not speed changes since commissioners can always make such moves themselves without going to her group, she said.

But Thomas said if the county needs to make changes, commissioners would typically seek the consolidated board’s advice then wait for a formal recommendation. Commissioners can move faster without the board, he said.

Thomas said he has the votes needed to abolish the consolidated board.

The board was established in February when the county merged its health and social services agencies, which previously reported to separate independent boards. At the time, the county had limited oversight of the two agencies but that changed when the departments were merged and put under direct county control.

Removing oversight?

Thomas and commissioners Chairman Frank Aikmus said the consolidated board should not be blamed for DSS problems.

But consolidated board member Brenda Yercheck, a veterinarian, said she was concerned that commissioners were removing the only outside oversight of the agency, one whose members have a lot of expertise in the field.

Without such oversight, nothing will change for the better in the county, said fellow board member Melinda Plue, a consumer of services for the developmentally disabled.

Blackley said she has heard commissioners have been unresponsive when at least two people raised concerns about how DSS handled their cases. Thomas said he has always responded whenever someone brought a concern to him about DSS.

In other developments:

• The county is assessing its hiring practices in human services, including more in-depth background checks. Until the health and human services boards were merged, the county had no say over hiring for those agencies; that was handled by department directors, with oversight by their respective boards.

Larson was hired in 2003 as a social worker. But in 1990, she was living in Alaska and surrendered her nursing license for “unprofessional conduct,” records show. The Union County job did not require a nursing license, and there would have been no reason to check on the status of such a license, county officials said.

•  The county confirmed that two DSS workers were placed on “investigatory suspension” with pay for two days last month while it re-examined a December 2012 incident involving Larson. An investigatory suspension is not a punishment but removes employees from the workplace while managers gather information.

In December 2012, the boy who later was found on the porch turned up at a neighbor’s house begging for food and saying he didn’t know where he lived. The Sheriff’s Office filed a complaint with DSS, which closed the case after determining it did not meet the statutory definition of abuse, neglect or dependency.

After media reports of that case resurfaced following Larson’s Nov. 15 arrest, county officials took another look at how it was handled. On Nov. 18-19, social worker Lisa Kawyn and social work program manager Kevin Williams were put on investigatory suspension, then returned to their regular status Nov. 20, county spokesman Brett Vines confirmed.

Richard Matens, executive director of the human services agency, has said that all state protocols were followed in the handling of the 2012 case.

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

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