Ex-foster child who had dead chicken tied to neck, two others get $1 million from NC

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North Carolina will pay $1 million to three former Union County foster children, including a man who was chained to his porch when he was 11, with a dead chicken tied around his neck.

The foster parents, including Wanda Larson, who headed the child-abuse investigations team from the Union County Department of Social Services, were arrested. Larson’s longtime male partner, Dorian Harper, at the time an emergency room nurse at what is now Atrium Health, served five years in prison. Larson pleaded guilty to a related charge but served no prison time, according to public records.

In all, three children who were under the couple’s care will receive the money, which will be paid by the N.C. Industrial Commission into a protective trust, said Durham-area attorney Jay Trehy, who helped represent the victims. All three live in North Carolina and range in age from 19 to 22.

Veteran Union County Sheriff Eddie Cathey, whose office investigated the case, said it remains “one of the saddest we’ve ever been involved in,” particularly given the professional responsibilities of the adults involved.

“It’s as bad as everybody says it is, just the nasty, terrible abuse of children ... (and) a DSS supervisor was messed up in all of it,” Cathey told the Observer on Thursday. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

Trehy said both Larson and Harper chose professions that normally attract “folks who really want to help.”

“Perhaps early on, they had adequate and proper motivation. But it’s telling that both of them after years of foster parenting became absolute monsters,” he said.

Larson and Harper could not be reached for comment Thursday either by phone numbers or email addresses linked to them in public records.

The 2013 incident drew headlines across the country. A 2019 lawsuit filed on behalf of the boy, identified in court documents as “J.G.,” alleged years of physical and potentially sexual abuse, neglect and even bouts of torture against the children under the care of Larson and Harper.

Harper, according to the complaint, squeezed children’s fingers with pliers, burned them with hot wires and stabbed them with hypodermic needles. He also tortured J.G. to get false confessions for things he had not done.

He pleaded guilty in March 2015 to felony child abuse in connection with the dead-chicken incident and was released from prison in February 2020.

“His crimes are so many and there are so many instances of abuse and torture — and I mean torture, sadistic torture — that he can’t do enough time as far as I’m concerned,” Trehy said.

Meanwhile, Larson, a former Union County foster parent of the year, used her position with the Union County DSS to suppress, manipulate and misdirect multiple abuse investigations into her own household. Those investigations, according to Trehy, “should have resulted ... in discovering what was going on in the home.”

Larson also undermined the efforts of J.G.’s natural mother, a one-time Charlotte resident, to reunite with her son, the lawsuit alleges, a struggle that went on for years.

When a Union County teacher’s assistant raised concerns in 2011 that one of the female children at the home might have been sexually abused, Larson helped stonewall the inquiry, then began home-schooling her children to head off further scrutiny, the complaint alleges.

She pleaded guilty in 2015 to willful failure to discharge her official duties. Other charges, including misdemeanor child abuse, cruelty to animals and false imprisonment were dismissed.

J.G. came under the couple’s care in 2006, after the Gaston County DSS “unnecessarily and negligently” removed him from his mother’s care, according to the complaint. He was 4 at the time.

Seven years later, the boy was found by a Union County sheriff’s deputy shivering in mid-20s temperatures with the dead chicken tied to his neck. He was chained by his ankle to the porch and was wearing only a T-shirt and jeans.

In the aftermath, five children ages 8-14 were taken from the home. Four had been adopted by Larson, including the two who will be receiving state money.

The upcoming payment will settle all claims arising from the case against the Gaston and Union County DSS offices for placing J.G. and the two children in unsafe conditions and failing to adequately investigate reports that Larson and Harper were abusing them.

It also heads off any legal actions against the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services along with the DSS offices in Cabarrus and Mecklenburg counties, which investigated the household in the past and because of what Trehy describes as Larson’s “manipulation,” did not report any abuse.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees DSS offices across the state, declined to comment about the settlement Thursday.

Trehy says two other abused children removed from Larson’s and Harper’s home in 2013 have not been located and may not know they have possible claims against the state.

“I’m still looking for them,” he said.