A visibly angry N.C. Sen. Tommy Tucker implored state health officials Tuesday to temporarily intervene in the “day-to-day operations” of Union County’s social services department after a shocking child abuse case that involved one of the agency’s own.
Tucker told state DSS Director Wayne Black at a legislative hearing that his office needs “to dive in” to the county agency while authorities investigate the handcuffing of an 11-year-old boy to the porch of his guardian’s Monroe-area home – with a dead chicken around his neck. Wanda Larson, a county child protective services supervisor who apparently is the boy’s legal guardian, and her longtime boyfriend were arrested in November and indicted a month later on child abuse charges.
Authorities removed the boy and four other adopted children, ages 7 to 14, from the home and placed them in the charge of Davidson County DSS. Larson also was fired by the county.
Tucker, a Waxhaw Republican who represents Union County, was incredulous after Black told a joint committee of lawmakers that his office doesn’t have the authority to intervene in Union County. Black said the county Human Services Department director requested the state investigate its operations, identify any deficiencies and make recommendations. DSS is part of the Human Services Department.
By law, Black said the state could only take over if Union’s human services and DSS directors weren’t cooperative, and they found children in danger.
But Tucker argued that DSS has had considerable changeover in leadership in the past three years and that Union County commissioners dissolved an advisory board to the Human Services Department.
“I don’t know what urgency it takes that the state doesn’t need to dive in and run that agency day to day,” he told Black during the Raleigh hearing. “The board’s been dissolved and you’ve got county commissioners that do not know the system ... now taking charge. You’re leaving the county ... to police itself and you’re going to take a hands-off approach because there is no state statute?
“Forgive me, sir, this is unbelievable; it’s unconscionable that this could happen.”
Commissioners chairman Frank Aikmus declined to comment.
Case ‘beyond belief’
Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Cornelius Republican and another committee member, said that legislators on the panel have “grave concerns” about child protective services at the state level. He said there are many DSS workers across North Carolina “who have no degree, background or training.”
He also agreed with Tucker that the state needs to intervene in Union.
“There are cases where the experts need to come in and take control,” Tarte said after the meeting. “The ultimate criteria is to ensure the safety of the children. As long as the kids are safe, who cares if we’re not being polite or politically correct? We don’t want overreaction, we don’t want (state) people just jumping in. It’s got to be the most severe cases only.
“The Union case crosses so far over what is humane behavior it’s beyond belief.”
Black said his office has been engaged in the case since the night it was reported in mid-November.
Authorities that night were investigating an animal complaint next door when they saw the boy tied up. They arrested Dorian Harper, Larson’s longtime partner and an emergency room nurse. Larson wasn’t home and was later arrested.
Investigators said it appeared the 11-year-old boy had been routinely handcuffed inside the house.
Union County cooperating
Black said Union County officials realized a conflict of interest existed and called the state to get an out-of-county DSS to investigate the abuse.
“Nobody at the state level has any authority to go in and investigate a case of child abuse and neglect,” Black said. Yet he and state employees – including Kevin Kelley, the state DSS child welfare section chief – have worked closely with DSS officials in Union and Davidson counties.
“They are cooperating with us and working with us with the intent to identify any problems and correct them,” Black said.
Kelley said he and others have made several trips to Monroe, pulling a sample of cases to make sure that what happened with the boy isn’t common.
“We know something bad happened,” Kelley said. “We’re making sure it’s not a pattern. We’re trying to build a picture of how the agency works. They’re very cooperative, very transparent.”
Tucker said he’s glad the state is taking those steps but still wants it to temporarily take control of the agency.
“I want them to offer their expertise on a day-to-day basis to make sure that they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing and that the proper process and the proper cross-checks are in place.
“They need to come in until they can tell me and everyone else in my county that DSS gets a grade A in their operation and that our children are safe.”