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Union Co. starts to detail DSS changes in wake of child abuse case

MONROE Union County human services officials announced on Tuesday night the first significant changes they are making in the aftermath of a former DSS supervisor indictment on child abuse charges.

The changes include adding a new quality assurance coordinator, strengthening conflict of interest guidelines and adding new rules for dealing with certain foster care cases.

Richard Matens, executive director of the county human services agency, which includes the Department of Social Services, updated county commissioners about the moves.

In November, Wanda Larson, who worked as a DSS child protective services supervisor, and longtime boyfriend Dorian Harper, were arrested after authorities found an 11-year-old boy handcuffed to their porch with a dead chicken tied around his neck. Larson, who was fired by the county, was the legal guardian for the boy, a former foster child of hers who had lived with her since he was about 3.

Larson and Harper were indicted by a county grand jury in December on felony child abuse and related charges.

The 11-year-old, and four other children whom Larson had adopted and were living in the Monroe-area home, are now under the care of Davidson County DSS. Union County investigators are looking to see if any or all of the 36 children who were under foster care by the couple over a 12-year period were abused or witnessed abuse.

Soon after the arrests, Union County asked the state Department of Health and Human Services to review the county’s DSS operations and how the county handles adoptions, foster care and child-abuse investigations. The state is also studying records of all children placed under the care of Larson and Harper.

The state’s report is not finalized.

“I really want to emphasize this is just the beginning” of the changes, Matens said. “We didn’t want to be sedentary until (the state) came out with the final report.”

Matens said the changes were in response to preliminary findings by the state as well as his department’s own initiatives.

For instance, he said the state raised concerns about the “intake process” for the initial handling of child abuse cases.

There were documentation problems, such as confusion over who was legally in charge of a child in certain cases. And because of the volume of cases, the county also had staff who were not experts with intakes handling some of those reports.

The state also faulted the child protective services unit – Larson’s old unit – for problems with documenting how cases were finalized and failing to properly document how they contacted absent parents.

“Our public has lost confidence in DSS,” commissioner Jonathan Thomas said, but he added that the moves the agency is making will help restore some level of confidence.

The changes Matens detailed include:

•  The new quality assurance coordinator will audit child protective services, foster care and adoption work to provide accountability throughout the department.

•  Before a case is potentially farmed out to another county over a possible conflict of interest, the case will be sent to Matens or the DSS director for review.

•  DSS reassigned two social worker positions to the child protective services’ intake unit. The change doubles the unit’s capacity to handle intakes.

•  A new software system will allow DSS to better document intake reports.

•  And the DSS director or Matens will review and approve all foster care cases where children are being adopted and parental rights are being relinquished

Bell: 704-358-5696;

Twitter: @abell
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