MONROE, N.C. (AP) — After a Union County child welfare supervisor was charged with handcuffing her foster son to a porch with a dead chicken tied to his neck, county officials sought help reviewing cases handled by her — and the rest of her department.
They asked the state Division of Social Services to not only review Wanda Sue Larson's cases, but how Union County Department of Social Services deals with all child-welfare cases — adoptions, foster care and child protection.
But what some Union County officials didn't know was that the state had already found problems with the agency nearly three years earlier as part of a routine review.
In one, it took the agency six days to act on a serious child abuse complaint — twice as long as required by law. In another, the agency removed a child from a home but then didn't check "on her safety and well-being" for 10 months. With another, Union County didn't investigate a complaint referred by another county even though it included allegations of sexual abuse.
After that report, which was dated February of 2011, the state asked Union County DSS to create a plan to address the deficiencies. The county DSS created the plan but didn't finish carrying it out. Nearly three years after the state review, Union County DSS is still struggling to make improvements.
Union County Commissioner Jonathan Thomas said if he had known about the state review he would have pushed DSS to take action.
"We would have called for an immediate action plan that was very tight on a timeframe and, if they failed to do that, I would personally as a commissioner be calling for some personnel changes," Thomas said.
Child welfare advocacy groups say they've received complaints for years about the Union County DSS. They say Larson's arrest and the state report raise more concerns since she was a child-protection investigations supervisor. Larson is charged with child abuse and false imprisonment.
"This agency is just a mess," said Jeff Gerber, founder of the Justice for All Coalition, a North Carolina group that lobbies for laws protecting children.
In an email, Richard Matens, executive director of Union County Human Services, said the county "acknowledges that there were numerous issues centering upon adequate documentation and follow up in children's services." But he insisted Union County is taking steps to improve the agency.
Larson and Dorian Harper, both 57 and from Monroe, were arrested in November after a Union County sheriff's deputy found the 11-year-old boy on the porch.
The couple now faces a 21-count indictment that spells out the abuse that investigators say occurred in their home between August and November. The couple had guardianship of the boy.
The indictment said Harper cut the boy's face with a knife and used an electric wire to burn his face.
A message left on Friday for Larson's attorney, Bob Leas, wasn't immediately returned.
The couple had adopted four children and were foster parents to the boy. The children are now in the custody of the Davidson County Division of Social Services
This wasn't the first time Larson had trouble. Last year, her foster son turned up at a neighbor's house, begging for food and saying he didn't know where he lived. The neighbor called the sheriff's office, which filed a complaint with DSS. But the agency determined it did not meet the statutory definition of abuse, neglect or dependency.
After Larson's arrest, the county looked at the role of the two DSS employees who worked on the 2012 case. They were initially suspended, but have returned to work after the county decided they followed "state protocols in relation to this case," Matens said in an email.
Still, the role Larson played in earlier DSS investigations is unclear, and that's one of the reasons Union County asked the state to investigate.
But the state had already uncovered problems at the agency in 2011.
The state reviews the practices of each county DSS every three years. It issues a report that includes seven categories. For each one, a county agency is either in "conformity" or "not in substantial conformity."
In Union County's 2011 report, all seven were "not in substantial conformity."
One category looked at a critical part of the process: Whether to accept a complaint for investigation. When a complaint is filed, it's screened. If it's accepted, a social services worker investigates.
The state pulled 10 cases in which the county declined to investigate after screening them. In one, Union County received a sex abuse and inappropriate discipline complaint from another county. Union County decided not to take action because the sex abuse allegations had already been investigated. But state said that decision was wrong because the complaint contained other serious allegations.
The state also found that six of the 10 reports in the category were not "completed thoroughly and appropriate maltreatment screening tools were not utilized."
In another, a child was removed from her home and placed with her father. But then no one checked to "ensure her safety and well-being" for at least 10 months.
When a category is found "not in substantial conformity," the county DSS has to file a detailed plan showing how it will improve.
Union County filed its improvement plan on June 23, 2011. But Matens said in an email that the plan "did not contain measurable or attainable objectives" and the county didn't complete the plan.
He added that Union County is still trying to address the problems the state found in 2011.
State officials can order a county DSS to make changes. But Sherry Bradsher, deputy secretary of human services, can't remember an instance of the state using that power. She said they'd rather work collaboratively.
"Child welfare is one of those areas where everybody wants to do the right thing and folks are striving to do the right things," she said.
But advocates say when the state doesn't force counties to take immediate action, children are at risk.
"The state is not doing its job," David Wijewickarama, a lawyer who has been looking into the Swain County DSS.
He has filed a lawsuit in connection with the death of Aubrey Littlejohn, a 1-year-old girl beaten to death in 2011 by her great aunt. Two child welfare workers were charged with covering up how they handled complaints in the case.
Wijewickarama looked at the state's report on Union County and said it's typical of the way the state deals with such agencies.
"The greatest tragedy of all is when they put agencies on notice and they fail to respond. This is not holding them fully accountable and responsible. And as a result, that community runs the risk of it happening again."