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Adopted boy's death spurs custody battle


Adopted boy's death spurs custody battle

Mandy Locke
Staff Writer

SMITHFIELD - At 49, Ron Ford Sr. never thought he'd be pleading to rear another batch of youngsters.

But he and his wife, Debbie, want back two battered grandchildren the Ford family lost to strangers years ago. They regret it took the death of the children's younger brother, 4-year-old Sean Paddock, to spur this fight.

Sean suffocated Feb. 26 after being bound tightly in blankets to keep him from roaming at his adoptive parents' farmhouse at night, investigators have said. Bruises covered the older two, as did marks from whippings with a plastic plumbing pipe.

Lynn Paddock, the children's adoptive mother, is charged with first-degree murder in the boy's death and felony child abuse in the others' injuries.

Since Sean's death, the Fords have hired a lawyer to help them win custody of Sean's 7-year-old sister and 9-year-old brother, who live with new families in Johnston County foster homes. They've asked to intervene in the custody case that involves the Paddocks and Johnston County Social Services, which will determine with whom the children will live permanently. They also want Sean's adoption file opened.

Ford family blood

So far, the Fords have been rebuffed at every turn. As far as the legal system is concerned, they are the strangers -- their kinship erased the moment the children were adopted outside the family.

Right now, the Fords are among many couples vying to raise Sean's siblings. Johnston County Social Services -- the agency that, with a judge, will decide the children's fate -- isn't obliged to give them special consideration. State law prohibits Earl Marett, the agency's director, from discussing the case, but he said the agency is concerned only with finding the best home for the children.

The Fords insist that the best home is theirs.

"No matter what has happened to those kids, they still have Ford blood running through them," Debbie Ford said. "They were born into this family, and that's where they belong."

Sean's sister and brother are not being named to protect their identity because of the abuse that officials say they've suffered.

Dwayne Ford, Ron Ford Sr.'s son, was Sean's father; social workers had removed the children from their biological parents after Sean came to day care with blue lips from living in a house without heat. Their uncle, Ron Ford Jr., took them in but had to return them to Wake County social workers after going broke caring for them and three children of his own. Social workers would not split the siblings between their uncle and grandparents, Ron Ford Sr. said.

The Paddocks adopted Sean and his siblings last summer, seven months after Sean returned from a preliminary visit to their home with a bruised backside.

Ron and Debbie Fords' world hasn't been the same since Feb. 26. They had settled into a couch in their Smithfield home that Sunday night to watch the news. A newscaster reported that a little boy named Sean had been killed in his adoptive home not 10 miles from theirs. Ron swallowed hard; they both knew it must be "their Seanie."

Since then, they've not slept through the night -- haunted by images of Sean and his siblings. Ron Ford, who runs Capitol Quick Lube in Raleigh, has shed 20 pounds.

They watch and rewatch home movies of Sean and their other grandchildren unwrapping Care Bears and Pokemon toys on Christmas Day 2003. It was the last time they saw the trio. In the videos, Sean's a wobbly toddler, scurrying around the Christmas tree trying to open his cousins' gifts. His sister is a shy grade-schooler, grinning into the camera as she clutches her new doll. The oldest boy is snaggle-toothed and boisterous, yelling for his aunt to film his loot.

"Seanie was so sweet, so lovable ... it's hard to imagine," Ron Ford says, trailing off as he watches the video again.

Motives questioned

The Fords' interventions in court haven't been well-received by attorneys for the Paddocks, Wake and Johnston social service agencies and the Children's Home Society, the private adoption agency that linked the children with the Paddocks. These attorneys blocked the Fords' attempt to open Sean's adoption file.

"There is no one in this courtroom that doesn't understand that the purpose of this expedition is for a wrongful death suit," said Ron Dilthey, attorney for Children's Home Society in Johnston County district court July 27. "Let's call a spade a spade. It's all about money."

Ron Ford Sr. said he just wanted to look for clues about why he and his wife were never asked to be permanent guardians of their grandchildren. He resents accusations that they are gold-diggers capitalizing on a tragedy.

Last month, Ron Ford Sr. was put on the witness stand after asking a judge to let him get involved in the custody case for Sean's siblings. Attorneys grilled him about why he didn't fight harder to keep the children from being adopted.

"They were talking to me like I murdered Sean," he said.

The Fords are trying to keep their calm and have faith the system will do what's right for Sean's surviving brother and sister. It's hard, they say, knowing how the same system failed Sean so badly.

The Fords expect word this fall on whether they'll be given permission to raise their grandchildren. In the meantime, Ron Ford Sr. finds himself staring at every child in grocery stores, hoping to spot his grandchildren. In his dreams, they run right up to him.

Staff writer Mandy Locke can be reached at 829-8927 or mandy.locke@newsobserver.com.
2006 Aug 8