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Union County Faulted Over Handling Of Previous Child Abuse Complaint

The Union County Department of Social Services used a “bogus” interpretation of state law in dismissing a 2012 sheriff’s complaint against a top DSS official, a child-protection expert said Thursday.

The DSS supervisor, Wanda Larson, was arrested last week in connection with a new abuse case involving the same boy as in 2012.

Last Friday, a deputy sheriff found the 11-year-old handcuffed to the front porch of his farm home, a dead chicken tied to his neck. Wanda Larson and Dorian Harper, both 57, were arrested on child abuse and other charges. Both remained in jail in lieu of bail and face Jan. 7 court dates.

Harper was arrested at the home; Larson who was at work at the time of the incident, was arrested later. Larson is a supervisor of child-protection investigations for the county DSS. She was placed on leave after her arrest.

She held the same job in December 2012 when the boy – who is under her legal guardianship – turned up at a neighbor’s home begging for food and saying he didn’t know where he lived. The deputy responding to the 911 call filed a complaint with DSS, not knowing that Larson worked there, Union Sheriff Eddie Cathey said.

Less than a week later, the deputy received a letter from DSS investigator Lisa Kawyn, saying that the deputy’s complaint “does not meet statutory definition of abuse, neglect or dependency,” and the matter was closed, the sheriff said.

Richard Matens, executive director of the county’s human services department, which oversees DSS, said the agency followed “all state protocols” in handling the 2012 complaint concerning an agency employee.

The initial screening of such cases is handled by the county, he said. If further investigation is warranted, the case is sent to another county to avoid conflicts of interest.

But Robert McCarter, managing attorney for the Council for Children’s Rights in Charlotte, said Union DSS misapplied the relevant state laws in the 2012 case. He also believes the agency erred by not asking another county to take over the case from the start.

McCarter, a former attorney for Mecklenburg County DSS, honed in on the state’s definition of a “neglected juvenile,” defined in part as one “who does not receive proper care, supervision or discipline” from a parent, guardian or caretaker, or “who lives in an environment injurious to the juvenile’s welfare.”

“Perhaps Union County should explain how a complaint that alleges that a child shows up ... begging for food couldn’t possibly be the result of a child not receiving proper care ... or be living in an environment injurious to his health or welfare,” McCarter said.

“The explanation that the allegations didn’t fit the statutory definition is bogus. That would be far too narrow an interpretation of the law.”

Told of McCarter’s comments, Matens said it would be “inappropriate for me to comment on this case ... since it is an ongoing investigation.”

In a prepared statement published on the county’s website Thursday, Union County officials defended their handling of the 2012 case. “The matter was evaluated, and it has been determined that Mrs. Kawyn acted according to State procedures in reviewing that particular case,” County Manager Cindy Coto said.

In response to an Observer inquiry, county officials said Thursday that both Kawyn and Larson were part of the agency’s child-protective services unit but were in separate work groups.

Kawyn was an intake social worker and not a supervisor, and has not worked for Larson at any point of her career, county officials said. Kawyn was one of 18 workers who reported to one supervisor, while Larson was one of three supervisors in another group. She directed a staff of five.

Union officials have asked the state and another county to review the handcuff case, and the state is also looking at how the county DSS handles adoptions, foster care and child protection.

Last week, five children were removed from the Larson/Harper home. They include the 11-year-old and four children ages 8 to 14 who had been adopted by Larson between 2002-09.

Cathey said investigators intended to interview the children this week. Among the things they hope to learn is how long the boy was handcuffed to the porch.

Asked why the dead chicken was tied with twine around the boy, Cathey said, “That had nothing to do with cults or devil worship, just ignorance.”

‘Lashing out’ at the family farm

Larson and Harper had formerly been foster parents licensed in Union and Gaston counties. But their license expired in 2010, and no foster children had been placed in the home since 2009, state officials say.

Michael Harper-Larson and his sister moved in with Larson and Harper as foster kids in 1998 and were adopted by Larson in 2000. Larson also adopted children in 2002 and 2005, and another brother and sister in 2009.

Harper-Larson said at least six other foster children joined the household while he lived there. All were returned to their families or DSS custody. He has described the 11-year-old, who had lived at the home for seven or eight years, as emotionally disturbed, abusive to the family’s animals, and difficult for his parents to control.

Harper-Larson said he did not know that his adoptive parents were unmarried until reading the coverage of their arrests. While he again described the household as strict but loving, Harper-Larson also offered further details on a 2011 physical confrontation with his adopted father that resulted in law officers being called to the farm.

Harper-Larson said the disagreement sprung from the family’s preparation for bad weather in advance of a hurricane approaching the coast. He said Larson wanted everything tied down or secure; Harper thought little if anything needed to be done.

The son said he had just started to flip over the family’s trampoline when Harper, whom his son described as “short-tempered,” came out of the house and angrily told him to stop. The two exchanged words, then Harper tried to apply a choke hold three times, his son said. After the last attempt, he said, he pushed the older man to the ground and ordered him to calm down.

He said he then used his own choke-hold, until his mother ran over, “popped” him in the head, told him to stop, then ordered him to leave the home. He said he and his fiance packed a few belongings, then called the sheriff’s office while standing in the driveway.

“They asked me if I wanted to press charges, and I didn’t,” he said. “I wanted to make the point that you can’t lash out at something so small.”

Harper-Larson returned to the family farm only once – to pack up the rest of his things. He said he hasn’t talked to Harper since their argument. “He’s the kind of person who holds a grudge,” he said.

Harper-Larson said he has written his mother in jail and hopes to visit her there. He said he told her that “I understand the circumstances, that you’re not alone.”

He said he has not heard back.

Before joining DSS, Larson worked with Gaston/Lincoln Mental Health, working with profoundly disturbed behavioral patients, her son said.

“She must feel humiliated by all this, and I’m not sure she even wants to see me,” Harper-Larson said. “She’s been made out to be this monster. ...

“But in my heart, I know they did not set out to abuse this child. They just lost sight of what they had to do as parents.”