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Many Records Off Limits In Union County Abuse Case

In the week since the Union County sheriff’s office charged a Monroe couple with handcuffing an 11-year-old boy by the ankle to their front porch, we know a lot about the case: We know the temperature was in the high 20s around 9 a.m. when an animal control officer spotted the boy. We know that one of the child’s caretakers, Wanda Larson, is a supervisor in Union County’s Child Protective Services. But, a lot of restricted information about Larson’s work, her adopted children, and the handcuffed child we don’t know. WFAE’s Ben Bradford joined Morning Edition host Kevin Kniestedt to discuss what we don’t know, and why.

KNIESTEDT: First of all, explain how we have the information we have—for instance, the temperature at the time of the arrest?

BRADFORD: Almost all of it comes from public records—and some of it’s really specific. Like, the police report tells us the circumstances of the arrest and that Larson’s partner, Dorian Harper has a devil tattooed on his right hip. Court records show that Larson has adopted six children in Gaston and Union County since 2000, which doesn’t include the 11-year-old in this case.

KNIESTEDT: So, what don’t we know?

BRADFORD: One of the big questions in this case, I think, is if this kind of abuse was happening, how was it not caught earlier? Larson and Harper should have received an assessment from an adoption agency, before each adoption. Did they find anything? Well, North Carolina has very deliberately carved out exemptions for juveniles from open records laws. Almost all records involving adoption are exempt. That’s also why we don’t know the children’s names. Now, foster care records didn’t used to be exempt, but the state health department is now claiming they are, so we’re in-process on those.

KNIESTEDT: And, to be clear, a state’s open records law lets journalists and members of the public request state and local documents, with some restrictions.

BRADFORD: Right, and for the federal government, it’s the Freedom of Information Act. North Carolina’s is more limited, though.

I think one of the questions in this case is: Larson is the head investigator for Union County Child Protective Services—how effectively was she investigating child abuse at other homes? And does that tell us something about our adoption and foster care systems? We don’t know. Lawmakers have exempted all but a proscribed list of information from state employee’s personnel files. So, we know Larson’s job title, and we know that she was suspended for disciplinary reasons a few years ago—but we don’t know why, or if it was in any way related to this current case. The state is conducting its own investigation, and it does have access to all of this information, so we may find out more when that concludes. And, of course, we’ll keep pushing.

KNIESTEDT: Okay, thanks, Ben.

BRADFORD: Thank you.