UNION COUNTY, NC (WBTV) - Social workers were alerted to possible cases of abuse at the home of then-Union County DSS supervisor Wanda Sue Larson twice before sheriff's deputies found a boy chained to her porch with a dead chicken around his neck in November 2013.
The revelation comes from documents contained in the never-before-seen juvenile custody court file of that boy recently obtained by WBTV.
More recent court filings have identified the boy as J.G.
The juvenile custody file, which remains under seal with the clerk of court, detail how J.G. came to be in Larson's custody, what investigators found after they searched the Larson-Harper home and the consequences years of abuse has taken on the child.
From foster placement to permanent guardianship
According to the court file, J.G. was first placed in foster care in 2006. At the time, court records show, J.G. was living with his grandparents while his biological mother lived out of state.
Social workers with the Gaston County Department of Social Services removed J.G. from his grandparent's home after two other children in the home were removed after one of those children sustained unexplained injuries. At the time J.G. was placed in foster care, the records show, 13 of his 16 teeth were decayed. Social workers also said the home of the boy's grandparents - where he was living at the time - was dirty and cluttered.
"The juveniles' beds were covered with clothing and Social Worker had difficulty walking through the residence due to all the debris (toys, clothes, tables, etc.) throughout the home. Social Worker also observed numerous roaches throughout the home and old food lying out in the kitchen area," a social worker wrote of the grandparents' home in a document filed in court in August 2006.
A judge granted Gaston County DSS's request to remove J.G. from his grandparents' home and place him in foster care. He was put in the home of Wanda Sue Larson and Dorian Harper, where J.G.'s two cousins were also living.
Documents filed in court show J.G. was immediately placed in the home of Larson and her longtime boyfriend, Dorian Harper. Early documents filed by Gaston County DSS describe the Larson-Harper home as a "Gaston County Foster Home."
Other documents contained in J.G.'s juvenile custody record show that Larson had been licensed as a foster care provider in both Gaston County and Union County.
There is nothing in the court record to reflect where J.G. was living or who he was living with until Gaston County DSS sought to award Larson permanent guardianship of J.G. in 2008.
Since the discovery of J.G. chained to Larson's porch in 2013, the boy has been described as Larson's foster child. But court records reveal that is incorrect.
Instead, Larson was awarded full, permanent guardianship of J.G. in September 2008, the records show.
Court records show Gaston County DSS social workers asked a judge to award Larson permanent guardianship of J.G. after unsuccessfully seeking to terminate J.G.'s mother's parental rights.
In granting Larson guardianship of J.G., a judge awarded Larson full custody, control and supervision of the boy.
J.G.'s mother was awarded two hours of supervised visitation with her son each month.
No record of home visits, other supervision
Regulations for foster parents that have been in place at least since 2007 require licensed foster parents to undergo a home reassessment once a year.
Despite that, there is nothing in the court record to show anyone ever visited Larson's home to perform such a review.
During the court proceeding over whether Larson should be awarded guardianship of J.G., Larson testified that she lived "in a five-bedroom home on forty acres of land located in rural Union County, North Carolina, with her male companion of seventeen years, Dorian Harper."
Court records also show Larson touted her position as a DSS supervisor during the guardianship hearing.
"Wanda Sue Larson is a Social Worker for the Union County Department of Social Services, a position which she has held for five years," the judge's order awarding Larson guardianship of J.G. says.
In awarding Larson guardianship, the judge's order also found that annual reviews of J.G.'s wellbeing were no longer necessary.
Effectively, the order awarded Larson full custody and control of J.G. with no oversight.
DSS called twice about possible abuse at Larson's home
The records also document two calls to DSS caseworkers about possible abuse at the Larson-Harper home years before J.G. and four other children were removed from the home in 2013.
According to the court records, the Larson-Harper home was investigated in 2008 and again in 2011. Both allegations were determined to be unfounded, the court records show.
"In 2008, (child's name redacted) told someone that Ms. Larson's boyfriend, Mr. Dorian Harper, would spank him with a belt and push him down on the floor," the record says. "The investigation was sent to another county for completion. Although the older children did admit that they would sometimes get spanked with a belt, the case was unsubstantiated, as there were no marks or bruises seen on any of the children."
It is not clear which outside agency investigated the 2008 claim. A spokesman for Union County refused to answer any questions for this story, including which agency outside Union County investigated the 2008 claim.
Caseworkers were called a second time in 2011.
"In 2011, an investigation was initiated because (female child's name redacted) made statements that her older brothers, (male child's name redacted)… would 'hump' her. In addition, allegations were made that the child and her blanket often smelled and she was often absent from school," the court records show.
Despite the allegations, it is not clear proper protocol was followed to investigate the girl's claims. Unlike with the 2008 claim, there is nothing in the records to indicate an agency outside of Union County was called to investigate.
What the record does say, though, is that Larson was allowed to have input into how the claim should be investigated.
"During the investigation, (female child's name redacted) made no disclosures of abuse. A Child Advocacy Center was not utilized, as Ms. Larson told the investigator that because (female Child's name redacted) had been abused when she was a baby that she was too developmentally delayed for an interview to be valid and she would also be traumatized by it," the record says.
Years later, J.G.'s mother said she could not believe investigators had been called years before her son was found chained to a porch, dressed in dirty clothes and shivering from the cold.
"Every single person who had the chance to help these kids and for some reason or another decided to look it over and say there was nothing legitimate to it, I hope every one of them pay," she said.
Counties fight release of DSS records
Now, J.G.'s mother and the boy's guardian ad litem are suing Union County and Larson, among others, seeking justice for what happened to him while in Larson's custody.
Attorneys for J.G. have filed a complaint against Union County and Larson that is currently pending in federal district court as well as a state court claim against the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for oversight of the state's foster care system.
As the boy's lawyers try to piece together how J.G. came to be tortured by two people who were supposed to be looking out for his wellbeing, they're having to fight various county DSS agencies for their records related to J.G.
The lawyers representing J.G. had to file a third action last fall, claiming they were unable to secure the proper order to access the files of various county DSS agencies that had a hand in J.G.'s foster care between 2006 and when his biological mother was given full custody of him in late 2015.
The third court action is a special proceeding against the DSS agencies of Mecklenburg County, Gaston County, Union County, Anson County, Cabarrus County and Davidson County.
Each county's DSS, the special proceeding petition claims, had a hand in J.G.'s care.
"While the Minor was in the custody of Larson and residing with her in Union County, UCHS received several reports that involved either the Minor or other children in the same Larson home and that triggered Child Protective Services Incident Reports. UCHS, GCDHHS, CCSS and MCDSS were each involved in or conducted an evaluation, investigation, or assessment prompted by these Child Protective Services Incident Reports," the petition states.
It is not clear from the petition whether the counties named in the complaint were involved in investigating the 2008 report, the 2011 report or other reports not detailed in the court records.
The special proceeding petition asks a state Superior Court judge to issue an order that would allow J.G.'s records to be released to the boy's attorneys under a protective order.
"I just don't understand," J.G.'s mother said. "If you have nothing to hide, give over the records."
A spokeswoman for Gaston County DSS declined to discuss specifics about the handling of J.G.'s DSS case and also refused to explain why it was fighting the process by which the case file could be legally released to J.G.'s lawyers.
Dale Moorefield, the director of Davidson County DSS issued the following statement in response to a request for comment:
But Moorefield did not respond to a follow-up question from a reporter asking why his agency was opposing the effort by J.G.'s lawyers to get a court order for the release of the records.
For J.G.'s mother, the current fight to keep her son's DSS records from seeing the light of day is just another side effect of a system she said failed to protect her son.
"The whole system failed him," she said. "And the way they're doing it by now turning it over, they're still failing him."