School staff had concerns about children whose mother was DSS manager

abell@charlotteobserver.comDecember 19, 2013 

Wanda Sue Larson, left, and Dorian Lee Harper

Wanda Sue Larson, left, and Dorian Lee Harper

The welfare of five children now at the center of a high-profile abuse case worried staffers at Union Academy charter school last year, a school supervisor said.

The supervisor said she decided to bypass the local Department of Social Services because she knew the children’s mother worked there as a manager. Instead, the supervisor tried to contact the state DSS directly, but she says her calls were not returned.

At school, the children occasionally appeared hungry or disheveled, according to the supervisor and another staffer. They asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to speak for the school.

In November, one of the children – an 11-year-old boy – was found handcuffed to the porch of his Monroe-area home with a dead chicken tied around his neck.

Authorities arrested Dorian Harper and his long-time partner Wanda Larson, who was a child protective services supervisor at Union County DSS at the time. She has since been fired. Harper and Larson face multiple charges, including felony child abuse and false imprisonment.

Officials removed the boy from the home as well as four other children, ages 7 to 14, whom Larson had adopted. Larson was the 11-year-old’s legal guardian, authorities said.

The children attended Union Academy, starting with the oldest in fall 2004, until March 2012 when they left to be home schooled, the supervisor said.

After becoming concerned because Larson intended to remove the children from the academy and home school them, the supervisor said she twice left voice mails in the spring of 2012 for Sherry Bradsher, who was the state’s social services division director. The supervisor said her messages conveyed her general concerns about the children but did not go into detail. She said she never got a call back.

Bradsher, now the deputy secretary of human services in the state Department of Health and Human Services, said in an emailed statement this week it was “regrettable” if anyone called her, left a message and did not get a call back.

“Everyone deserves a return call,” she stated. “DSS staff, and I include myself, would follow proper protocol to refer anyone suspecting abuse and neglect to the county Department of Social Services.”

Around the time the Union Academy supervisor called Bradsher, Bob Goodale, a former deputy secretary in the state Commerce department whose daughter teaches at the academy, said he spoke with Bradsher by phone. He relayed concerns his daughter had that the children might be victims of neglect or abuse because they seemed dirty and hungry on occasion.

But Goodale said this week the state apparently never called the school. “This was not handled right,” he said.

He said he regretted not doing more to push the state to investigate. “I wish I would’ve pestered them more. I just let it go. In hindsight, it was a big mistake,” he said.

While the state cannot comment on specific cases, DHHS spokesman Ricky Diaz said the state does not investigate reports of child abuse claims from the public. By law, he said, that responsibility lies with county DSS agencies.

If any DHHS employee is contacted about a potential abuse case, the person making the claim would be referred to the county DSS, Diaz said. “We make sure the person (with the complaint) understands their duty to report it to the county,” he said.

If there is a potential conflict of interest at the county level, there are procedures in place to deal with the issue and possibly have another county investigate the claim, Diaz said.

Goodale said he does not recall being told to take his concerns to the county.

After Larson’s arrest, Union County asked the state DHHS to examine all of the county DSS’s procedures and protocols. The state also is studying records of all the children placed under Harper and Larson’s care.

Richard Matens, executive director of the county Human Services department , said he expects that review to take at least until late January.

Concerns at school

The children appeared dirty or hungry often enough that teachers and staff noticed, the academy supervisor and staffer said. “It seemed like several times a month there would be comments about them,” the supervisor said.

Employees would keep fruit cups or granola bars on hand so they could give them to the children if they seemed hungry that day, according to the supervisor. Other times, their school uniforms appeared not to have been washed, the supervisor said.

She said she did not see any signs of physical abuse with any of the children.

Over the years, a couple of co-workers had told her that they tried raising concerns with the county DSS about the children but had gotten nowhere, the supervisor said.

Employees knew Larson worked there; she oversaw investigations of child abuse complaints. The Union Academy supervisor said she tried talking to the state to “go over the head” of the local agency.

Union Academy Head of School Ann Walters did not respond to phone or email messages.

Matens, the head of the county human services department which oversees DSS, declined to comment. He said he is prohibited by law from talking about any child protective services case.

Matens said to his knowledge, no outside county’s DSS was involved in reviewing any complaints involving Union DSS workers in spring 2012.

Larson was placed on disciplinary suspension on May 29, 2012, county records show. Matens said he cannot discuss that action.

Larson and Harper remain in Union County jail. A 21-count indictment against the couple was handed down last week by a grand jury. It provided details of alleged abuse the 11-year-old boy suffered between August and November.

All five children are together and now are under the supervision of Davidson County DSS.

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

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