State accused of ignoring signs of abuse of handcuffed Union boy
Posted December 13, 2013
MONROE, N.C. — Months before an 11-year-old boy was found handcuffed to a porch in Union County in November with a dead chicken tied to his neck, teachers at the boy's former school tried to alert authorities that he might be a victim of child neglect.
The boy's guardians, Wanda Sue Larson and Dorian Harper, have been indicted on 21 charges in connection with abuse that investigators say occurred in their home between August and November. The Monroe couple, both 57, are also accused of chaining the boy to a piece of railroad track in his room – he once broke his wrist trying to escape – and Harper is accused of cutting the boy's face with a knife and using an electric wire to burn his face.
Larson and Harper have been fired from their respective jobs as a supervisor with the local Department of Social Services and an emergency room nurse. Both remain in jail awaiting trial, and the boy and four other children have been removed from the home and are in the custody of the Davidson County Division of Social Services.
Bob Goodale, a former corporate executive and deputy secretary of the state Department of Commerce, said Friday that he's "appalled" by the allegations, especially because he tried to alert state officials to possible abuse more than a year ago.
Goodale's daughter is a teacher at Union Academy Charter School in Monroe, where the boy attended, and she contacted him for help because of his connections in state government.
She said she and other faculty members noticed the boy and the other children living with Larson and Harper were continually dirty and hungry, and they worried about child neglect, especially after the children were pulled out of Union Academy to be home-schooled.
Teachers didn't know where to turn, she said, because Larson worked in the Union County DSS office.
"The problem was this was a DSS employee in the key job," said Goodale, who lives in Raleigh. "Where was the state DSS?"
WRAL News obtained an email chain confirming that Goodale contacted the state Division of Social Services about the Union County case, but there's no indication that the state ever followed up with the Union Academy teachers.
DHHS spokeswoman Julie Henry said Friday that all abuse cases are handled at the county level.
"By law, the county Department of Social Services is the agency that has the authority to accept and screen child protective service reports. It is protocol for the state to refer any reports of abuse to the county DSS office," Henry wrote in an email to WRAL News. "We encourage anyone to reach out to their county Department of Social Services if they suspect that a child is being abused or neglected."
What if the accused is a DSS supervisor? Goodale said he hopes who's in charge of investigating DSS will become part of a broader look at North Carolina's child welfare system.
"Clearly, there needs to be reform," he said, blaming the system and even himself for not pushing harder about the warning signs in the case. "We need to learn from this and take all possible steps to ensure this never, never happens again."
State officials have agreed to Union County's request to review how employees handle adoptions, foster care and child protection. Child advocacy groups have called for an outside group, such as the state Attorney General's Office, to investigate.