Union Co. DSS ordered to reopen past cases of child abuse

by: Kathryn Burcham Updated:


UNION COUNTY, N.C. - State officials said Union County DSS will have to reopen three possible child abuse and neglect cases that workers may have mishandled.

The revelations come in an exclusive interview with Eyewitness News about the NC DHHS review over the past month of policies and procedures inside Union County DSS.

Department of Human Services Director, Richard Matens, who oversees DSS, told Channel 9 that a team of state officials visited DSS three times since December and randomly selected more than 50 cases dating back three years to review.

Some of those cases were overseen by Wanda Larson, a former Child Protective Services supervisor who has since been arrested on child abuse charges after a child under her guardianship was discovered handcuffed to her front porch with a dead chicken tied around her neck.

"We are now holding [our supervisors] at a much higher accountability level than we did in the past," Matens said.

State reviewers found problems with social workers' documentation, including what Matens called inconsistencies and discrepancies in handwritten and electronic intake reports.

"Some things might have been omitted from one side or the other, or been added. They were trying to figure out why there was more on one document than the other," Matens said.

State officials said some of the complaints about possible neglect or abuse were taken by employees not properly trained to handle the process.

"Certain questions have to be asked and certain items have to be followed up with and so there was some concern whether these intakes were truly complete. Decisions could be made to close a case prematurely without enough information that was gathered," Matens told Eyewitness News.

Matens said files showed some social workers also didn't go far enough to locate or interview possible witnesses or family members in abuse or neglect cases, and that documentation didn't reflect if some cases were ever referred to the Union County District Attorney's office.

"They may have spent five minutes on a case when maybe they should have spent a half hour on a case," Matens said.

Union County DSS has since hired two more full-time social workers to help with the intake process and plans to hire or promote more supervisors. Matens said the Wanda Larson case also showed a need to tighten the department's conflict of interest policy, which they have since revised.

Matens has also purchased and installed new software meant to streamline the documentation system, and hired a Quality Assurance Coordinator to audit social work cases.

In the past four weeks, Matens said the accuracy and completeness of files inside DSS has risen from 50 percent to 97 percent.

The entire state DHHS review is expected to be released by the end of next week, and that's when Matens said DSS will learn more details about which cases they need to reopen - and if those cases were under Wanda Larson.

Larson and her long-term boyfriend Dorian Harper, remain in jail on multiple criminal charges.

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