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NC reports detail problems in Union, Gaston DSS

A pair of state reports issued Wednesday detailed problems in the Division of Social Services of Union and Gaston counties, including how child abuse and foster care cases were handled.

The review by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services was prompted by a high-profile child abuse case near Monroe, where an 11-year-old boy was found handcuffed to a porch with a dead chicken tied around his neck.

In Union, the state found a lack of substantive meetings with children to determine if the child’s needs are being met. And the state cited concerns about Gaston social workers not balancing the dual role of supporting foster parents while monitoring for proper care of children in the home.

“We’re expecting changes to be made in both counties,” said Wayne Black, director of the state DSS in DHHS. “We feel confident they will continue to work with us to accomplish these changes.”

The 11-year-old boy was found in mid-November. His legal guardian, Wanda Larson, was a Union DSS child protective services supervisor. Larson and her boyfriend Dorian Harper were charged with child abuse.

Soon after the arrests, Union requested the state review its DSS practices. The state said it also would study the records of the children placed under Harper and Larson’s care by Union and Gaston counties.

But the reports issued Wednesday made no detailed mention of those records.

Black said cases involving those children were reviewed along with other cases. Because of privacy issues, he could not specify which, if any, concerns were related to those children.

Harper and Larson’s home was licensed for foster care by Union County DSS from December 1998 through mid-September 2003, and by Gaston County DSS until December 2010.

Over a 12-year period, 36 children were under foster care by Harper and Larson, court records showed, and were placed there by Union or Gaston County.

Gaston’s report

The state said it focused on Gaston’s foster care work “due to questions regarding the supervision of the (Harper-Larson) foster home and placement of the children in the foster home.”

The report contained seven key findings. Among the highlights:

• In some cases, DSS awarded guardianship of children to foster parents or other caregivers when there were seemingly appropriate relatives who were not evaluated, or without fully informing the foster parents of the financial and legal impact for them and the child.

• There was little evidence of case planning by social workers with families, children or alternate caregivers.

• There were minimal home visits to parents or other caregivers to examine their progress on case plans.

Recommendations included: having DSS quickly move to implement a quality assurance system; starting a case-tracking log to assure that substantive contacts are being made and documented; and developing guidelines for when foster parents or other caregivers would be considered for guardianship.

Chris Dobbins, director of Gaston County Health and Human Services, said the report shows procedures could be tweaked and improved, including more checks and balances. “We will use it (the report) as a way to get better,” Dobbins said.

Union’s report

Union’s report also contained seven key findings. Highlights included:

• There was a lot of turnover in the top DSS position in the last five years. In the absence of leadership, work stalled on a state pilot program to improve outcomes for people in the child welfare system.

• There were documentation problems over initially handling child abuse cases.

• Some assessments in reports of suspected child abuse, neglect or dependency “lacked reasonable efforts” to get all of the information needed to make informed decisions.

• Documentation was lacking for regular supervisor conferences with social workers.

Recommendations included: re-engaging in the pilot program; fully implementing a quality assurance system and starting a case-tracking log for social workers.

Richard Matens, head of the county Department of Human Services, which includes DSS, said the county had already begun making changes. That includes adding a quality assurance coordinator, bolstering conflict-of-interest guidelines and adding rules for dealing with certain foster care cases.

The state will provide staff for Union and Gaston to help implement the recommendations. Reporter Joe DePriest contributed

Bell: 704-358-5696; Twitter: @abell
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