A former child protective services supervisor who admitted her role in the shocking abuse of a boy under her care was sentenced Tuesday in a deal that means she will be out of jail within a few weeks.
Wanda Sue Larson was sentenced in Union County Superior Court to a maximum of 17 months in jail. She already has spent about 161/2 months in jail since her November 2013 arrest.
The high-profile case came to light when a deputy found a shivering, undernourished 11-year-old boy shackled to Larson’s porch with a dead chicken tied around his neck. Larson was a Union County DSS supervisor at the time, and her arrest prompted a review of the county’s foster care, adoption and child-protection programs.
The county’s social services division overhauled its practices as five workers were fired and a top manager was demoted. The agency also finalized a plan for the state last year for improving its operations.
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Before sentencing on Tuesday, Larson expressed remorse for failing to protect the boy and four other children in her home from her live-in boyfriend, co-defendant Dorian Harper.
“I just want to tell the children how sorry I am I couldn’t have protected them better,” Larson said. “There’s no excuse. I should have done more ... and I apologize.”
As part of the deal, Larson, 58, pleaded guilty to four child abuse-related charges that carried a maximum penalty of 37 months. She was sentenced to less than half of that. Two other felonies and several misdemeanor charges were dropped.
She also will be put on probation for 5 1/2 years, will undergo a mental health evaluation and is allowed no contact with the children while under court jurisdiction.
After the sentencing, Union County District Attorney Trey Robison said he agreed to the deal so the children would not have to testify. The children were crucial to the case, he said, but they were not always forthcoming or consistent in their statements.
“The evidence was not shaky but it was unpredictable,” Robison said. “We did the best we could to protect the children from being re-victimized in court.”
Larson also cooperated with investigators and was willing to testify against Harper, Robison added. Neither defendant had a previous criminal record, which would have increased their sentences.
Harper, 58, made a plea deal in mid-March and was sentenced to a minimum of six years and three months, with a maximum of 10 1/2 years in prison.
“From the start, we viewed Harper as the more culpable of the two,” Robison said. “Harper’s crimes were ones of commission and Larson’s were ones of omission.”
When the case began in November 2013, Larson was at work and Harper was at their Monroe-area home. A sheriff’s deputy was looking into a complaint about one of the couple’s hogs running loose in the neighborhood when he found the boy shackled on the porch with a dead chicken tied to him.
Prosecutors said Harper focused his anger on the boy, blaming him for any perceived problem in the home.
Among the punishments outlined in court: Harper twisted the boy’s pinkie finger with pliers, burned his face with electrical wires, cut his face with a knife and saw that he was shackled day and night. Larson was “part of the process” when the boy was chained to a steel railroad track in a locked room at night, prosecutor Cristin Dunne said.
The house itself, part of a 5-acre farm, was covered in urine, dirt and animal feces, prosecutors said. Authorities believe Harper tied the dead chicken around the boy as punishment for killing a chicken on the property.
When the deputy found the boy on the porch, he had a broken wrist, cuts and was severely undernourished.
Dunne told the judge that while a lot of the abuse happened when Larson was not home, “she knew about it and failed to help.” Larson also did not get medical attention the boy needed, she said.
‘A tragedy for all’
Larson entered the courtroom with a walker. Her appearance was noticeably changed since her arrest. Her hair is now gray and a January mug shot showed her with a mustache although she did not appear to have one in court on Tuesday.
Unlike at Harper’s hearing, none of the five children were in the courtroom.
Larson quietly answered “yes, sir” and “no, sir,” to questions from Judge Reuben Young.
She pleaded guilty to incidents between October and November 2013 – two felony counts of negligent child abuse inflicting serious physical injury and one count each of misdemeanors for false imprisonment involving the railroad track and willful failure to discharge her duties, tied to her social services role.
Larson had been the boy’s guardian since he was about 3. She had adopted the other four children found in the home. All five are in DSS custody outside of Union County.
“This whole issue has been a tragedy for all concerned,” Larson’s attorney, Bob Leas, told the court. He noted that Larson had agreed to testify against Harper, and that she did not want to traumatize the children by having them testify in her case.
Impact of the case
After their arrests, Larson was fired by the county, and Harper lost his job as an emergency room nurse at a Monroe hospital.
Richard Matens, Larson’s former boss and head of the county’s Human Services Department, said he hoped the children, and the county, can find closure and move forward. “It’s been quite an ordeal over the last several months.”
Matens said he was surprised at how short Larson’s sentence is. “I’m a little surprised, but I trust the judgment of the legal system,” he said.
He noted that uncovering abuse in the Larson home means five children are now in a safer place, and the county DSS is in better shape to protect all children in its care.