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UNION COUNTY, NC (WBTV) -
Officials in Union County say an employee with the Department of Social Services has been suspended without pay while she undergoes a criminal investigation after deputies say a foster child in her care was found handcuffed to a porch.
According to county officials, Wanda Sue Larson, 57, is on investigatory suspension with no pay while Union County Deputies investigate the incident.
Larson and 57-year-old Dorian Lee Harper were arrested Friday after a young boy was found handcuffed to the front porch of a home with a dead chicken tied around his neck.
According to the Union County Sheriff's Office, a deputy was responding to an animal services complaint at a home along Austin Road when he saw the 11-year-old boy outside.
The boy, who deputies say was handcuffed at the ankle, also had a dead chicken hanging around his neck. The report states the young boy appeared to be shivering, as well.
A few moments later, Harper came to the porch and asked the deputy why he was there. The Deputy then asked the man for his identification, as well as an explanation of why the child was handcuffed to the porch.
The deputy was given identification, but was then forced back to his vehicle when a child opened a door to the house and released several large dogs that attacked him.
By the time the deputy was able get the animals secured, Harper had removed the child from the porch. He left the dead chicken on a barrel on the porch, officials said.
When additional officers arrived, they conducted a search of the house and removed a total of five children from the home, all between the ages of eight and 14.
WBTV has learned that three of the children are related to one another. All of the children have been living with Larson for several years, family members told WBTV.
Deputies said that based on the general living conditions at the home, they initiated a criminal investigation. Harper and Larson were taken into custody at the scene.
Officials told WBTV that Larson has been a Union County DSS employee since 2003 and currently is employed as a supervisor.
She is reportedly handling dozens of cases for the county. Brett Vines, a spokesperson for DSS, said they have asked the state to help investigate the county's protocol and practices concerning Larson.
All of Larson's cases are being divided among the other DSS supervisors. He said they are trying to find out how Larson's personal adoption and fostering cases were supervised and handled. They children were not given to Larson's care while she worked for Union County.
A statement released by Union County officials Monday states, "None of the five children in the home of Mr. Harper and Ms. Larson were placed by Union County during the time that Ms. Larson has been employed by the Union County Department of Social Services."
According to her personnel file, Larson was reportedly placed on disciplinary suspension in May 2012. The reason for the suspension is not listed in the file.
Both Larson and Harper were charged with intentional child abuse inflicting serious injury, false imprisonment, and cruelty to animals due to the condition of some of the family pets.
Larson was also charged with willful failure to discharge her duty as a public official.
Carolina's Healthcare System told WBTV Harper is an RN at Carolinas Medical Center - Union's Emergency Room. Harper is on administrative leave, according to officials.
Larson and Harper appeared in jail suits and chains inside a district court Monday morning. A judge assigned them public defenders and upheld their bond amounts.
Harper is being held under a $500,000 secured bond, while Larson's bond is set at $525,000.
Officials told WBTV that while Larson was not home when the children were found, she is accused of being complicit in the ongoing mistreatment of the children. She and Harper had adopted four of the children, and were serving as foster parents of the 11-year-old, who was found on the porch.
Two of the 11-year-old boy's relatives came to the courthouse Monday. They said they are fighting to get the boy back and have been for several years.
The boy's biological mother, who only wanted to be named as "Maria" to protect her son, said the discovery was a blessing.
"I guess it was their type of punishment. To me that's just so crazy they would do that type of punishment," said the Maria.
She says Larson took her son into foster care seven years ago.
"I've never completely moved on. I loved that boy with all my heart," Maria said about her effort to get the boy back.
She and her relatives said they dropped off case documents to the Sheriff's Office Monday to help in the investigation.
It's a case getting national attention.
Captain Ronnie Whitaker said because of the Larson's job with DSS in Union County, the kids were transferred to the care of a system in another county.
Union County Sheriff Eddie Cathey called the incident "shocking."
He said, "I can assure you that we have only just begun our investigation into what has happened, and we will pursue it to its fullest extent."
Tommy Bigham a neighbor said Larson and Harper facing felony child abuse and animal cruelty charges isn't enough.
"What they need to do is get him back over there, hook him to the post, put a chicken around his neck and see how it feels out in the cold," said Bigham. "That's sorry."