Foster father goes on trial in sex abuse case
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Two boys who were in his care say Joseph L. Larson sexually abused them. His lawyer termed the allegations "horrible," said he "dedicated his life to helping troubled kids."
By David Chanen
May 1, 2011/StarTribune
For nearly a decade, the boys from St. Paul lived with what authorities say was a terrible secret. Last summer, authorities were finally able to shine a light on the boys' allegations: They'd been sexually abused as foster children by the man entrusted to care for them.
Joseph L. Larson, 34, will go on trial Monday over the allegations, which prosecutors say are very rare. Because of his position of authority, prosecutors have already filed a motion to seek an upward departure from state sentencing guidelines if Larson is convicted.
Larson said through his attorney that he is looking forward to his day in court. Jury selection in the case concerning one of the foster children is scheduled to start Monday in St. Paul. Larson also is faces more recently filed felony charges in Anoka County of possession of child pornography.
"While these allegations are horrible, Joe has never and would never hurt a child," said Katie Rindfleisch, Larson's attorney. "In fact, he had dedicated his life to helping troubled kids."
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi declined to comment about Larson's case. Speaking generally, he said, "Kids in foster care are already victims and highly vulnerable, and the system needs to protect them."
Before he was charged last August, Larson was investigated twice by a child pornography task force but not charged. He also had had his foster care license closed after one of the youths in the current case made an allegation against him, according to court documents.
Larson is charged with one count each of felony criminal sexual misconduct. One of the former foster children, now 17, was in his care from 2002 to 2005; the other, now 23, was with him for three months in 2003. Monday's trial is for the case involving the 17-year-old.
Licensed in 2002
Larson became a licensed foster parent through a private agency, PATH Minnesota Inc., in Monticello in 2002. Private and county agencies process all foster care applications, and the requirements are the same for each. Background studies are submitted to the state's Department of Human Services, which completes the inspection of the prospective foster care home.
Larson cared for four children, including two brothers, while licensed with PATH Minnesota.
In November 2004, a state task force received a report from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement about information discovered during an Internet child pornography investigation. Investigators found credit cards issued to Larson had been used to buy access to child pornography websites in 2002 and 2003, court documents said.
Two officers assigned to the state's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force looked into the report but didn't have enough for a warrant to search his computer, said officer John Keating, a spokesman for the St. Paul Police Department. PATH Minnesota wasn't informed about the report, said George Hendrickson, PATH's CEO. "Had we known about the allegations, we would have been mandated to take action," he said.
In January 2006, the Internet crimes task force again investigated Larson, going to his house. He told investigators the credit cards used to access child porn websites were stolen in 2004 but he hadn't reported it to police, court documents said.
Larson told police he wouldn't consent to a search of his computer because it contained private information about foster children, according to a police report. He also questioned whether the investigators were really police officers, the documents said. Before leaving, one investigator told Larson he was bothered that someone involved in foster care "would not do everything in their power to work with law enforcement in order to show non-involvement with this offense," the document said.
By this time, the 17-year-old and his brother were no longer in Larson's care and were with a foster parent in Hennepin County, court documents said. Larson told the police he wished to adopt the children and repeatedly said he would not hurt children, according to the document. But in February 2006, the 17-year-old, then age 12, told his new foster mother that Larson did inappropriate things to him and also said Larson kissed one of the boy's friends, a different document said. He and the friend later repeated the allegations to social workers. The allegations were investigated, but no case was brought against Larson.
Because of the pending investigation, PATH Minnesota closed Larson's foster care license in May 2006. His attorney said a letter she received from the agency stated the license was closed at Larson's request. The letter, signed by a PATH Minnesota regional director, also said "Joe has been a kind and caring foster parent and has given good service to PATH." Larson served on the agency's board and was a member of the education committee.
Sought new license
Larson applied for a new foster care license through Ramsey County in fall 2007. It was approved but revoked a year later by the Department of Human Services when the county learned Larson had not disclosed that he had been previously licensed and that there was a pending investigation by law enforcement, according to a department revocation letter.
In February 2010, St. Paul police were again alerted when the 17-year-old told a social worker about sex abuse incidents that allegedly occurred during his time in Larson's care, according to a criminal complaint filed against Larson.
After speaking with the boy, police interviewed the foster child who is now 23 and who had lived with Larson for three months in 2003 when he was 14 or 15.
Larson was charged with criminal sexual misconduct in August. The child pornography criminal complaint in Anoka County was filed four months later.
In a short statement, Rindfleisch said her client has provided foster, respite and personal attendant care for more than 20 children in need. Larson also "serves our country in the National Guard and has since 2007," she said. At trial, she said, she plans to call several witnesses who will testify that Larson is caring, trustworthy and honest.
"Some of our witnesses have known Joe for over 10 years and some are former foster children and will share how Joe saved their lives," she said. "This has been a terrible and emotional time for Joe. Although he regrets there has to be a trial, Joe looks forward to proving his innocence in court."
David Chanen • 612-673-4465