The house on Austin Road still needs work, but it looks much improved compared to when Union County investigators say they found an 11-year-old boy chained to the porch in November of 2013.
The boy's guardian was Wanda Larson, a DSS supervisor at the time. Her partner was Dorian Harper, an emergency room nurse. Both face several counts of child abuse. Harper's trial just started with jury selection Monday. Larson's trial is scheduled for next month.
In some ways, similar improvements can be seen within Union County DSS. It runs better than it did when Harper and Larson were arrested.
Richard Matens is the executive director of Human Services, which oversees the agency. "I think we have gone 180 degrees," said Matens.
They had to make big changes. The criminal indictments read like a house of horrors, saying the child was burned with electrical wire, cut with a knife, and even broke his wrist trying to escape handcuffs.
This was a crisis.The DSS response was critical. The failure was under a microscope.
Immediately, Union County asked the state Department of Health and Human Services to lead an investigation and assess procedures. Glaring mistakes were found in a report released several months later. There were issues with documentation by social workers and in-take staff. Sometimes social workers failed to follow through with cases involving children potentially in harmful situations.
Matens says he brought in new leadership and they created more positions to overhaul the child welfare agency. They have a quality assurance manager. Case workers use tablets out in the field to provide real-time reports, making documentation gaps less of a problem.
"It was an opportunity for us to take a hard look at ourselves," he said.
Matens said he will be watching the Harper trial, but he has not been called to testify. He wants the public to know they are an improved agency which puts children first. Real change takes time, he says.