exposing the dark side of adoption
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Sean's short life shows system's flaws


Sean's short life shows system's flaws

State, local and nonprofit agencies overlooked red flags that indicated 4-year-old was in danger

Mandy Locke, Staff Writer

Sean Paddock was born in turmoil, early and tiny, to a broken family.

Social workers fretted over how to protect the boy. They finally recruited new parents to raise him.

Sean, 4, died at the hands of his adoptive mother, Lynn Paddock. She beat him and bound him in a dark, drafty attic in her Johnston County farmhouse. This month, a jury sent Paddock to prison for the rest of her life.

Sean's death rattled the system the state built to protect children like him. The state funnels foster children into adoptive homes, sparing them years in limbo while their parents straighten up.

To make the system work, the state attaches a dowry of sorts to children like Sean. The state pays new parents and pays private adoption groups such as Children's Home Society to help recruit families.

But Sean's death shows how the system can fail the children it was meant to protect.

Nearly 12,400 former foster children are currently being reared by adoptive parents recruited through this system. It's not clear how many have been adopted into dangerous homes. Adoption records and social services reports of abused and neglected children are confidential in North Carolina.

But Paddock's trial, a review of state contracts with Children's Home Society and documents obtained by The News & Observer show how easily Sean ended up in harm's way.

Social workers had plenty of warning that Sean might be harmed at Paddock's home. Wake County social workers had misgivings about putting him in the crowded house, miles outside the nearest town; a bruised backside after his first visit made them even more nervous.

And, over a decade, a social worker from Children's Home Society spotted unsettling risk factors in Paddock's home. But her agency had no incentive to walk away. The state pays the agency for completed adoptions.

The state Division of Social Services might have noticed something was amiss, but its annual audits don't go beyond a technical review of contract obligations.

In 2005, social workers declared the Paddocks' home the best place for the Ford children to grow and thrive. The state sent the Paddocks their first monthly check for $1,270.

All the while, Lynn Paddock was coming undone.

Moment of reckoning

North Carolina's child welfare officials had a moment of reckoning in the early 1990s. Abused and neglected children were growing up without parents. The state had found their birth parents unfit, and they had been sent to live in temporary homes while social workers waited on their parents to get it together.

The state set deadlines for these parents. If they couldn't shape up in about a year after their child was taken, the state would look for replacement parents.

Finding them would be difficult. Most of these children were damaged: beaten, starved, molested. Persuading parents to adopt them would be a tough sell.

The state carved out money to pay private adoption agencies to recruit and prepare adoptive parents. Agencies such as Children's Home Society earn from several thousand dollars to $15,000 for every child placed. Children's Home Society could have earned as much as $45,000 for placing Sean and his two siblings, though the state won't say exactly how much the agency earned.

Adoptive parents would be paid, too, for taking on such a responsibility. Depending on the child's age, they earn between $390 and $490 a month until the child is 18.

In the mid-1990s, the number of foster children adopted each year jumped from about 250 to about 1,300. This year, the state offered nearly $26 million to adoptive parents caring for 12,384 former foster children.

Children's Home Society did well. They found homes for hundreds of foster children.

The agency was also responsible for screening families, weeding out those not equipped to adopt foster children.

The state's relationship with Children's Home Society could be a problem, said Richard P. Barth, dean of the University of Maryland's School of Social Work. He said there's no incentive to walk away from a bad fit.

"To do more placements and meet contract obligations, there's a tendency to overlook ... red flags," Barth said.

Heavy baggage

Lynn Paddock followed a boyfriend and the hope of a job to Raleigh in the late 1980s, her family said. She hauled heavy baggage: a turbulent childhood, two failed marriages and an addiction to alcohol.

In 1989, she ended up at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Raleigh, ready to get clean.

There she met Johnny Paddock, a young father also trying to wean himself off alcohol. Within a few months, Lynn moved in with Johnny and his infant daughter, Jessy. By 1990, they'd married.

They wanted a playmate for Jessy, Lynn told jurors, but pregnancy never took. One day, as the Paddocks ate at a Wendy's restaurant, a place mat caught her attention. On it, Wendy's founder Dave Thomas urged customers to adopt older foster children.

"At that point, I thought that was my calling," Paddock testified.

The Paddocks called a social worker at Children's Home Society of North Carolina. Deborah Artis, now the Triangle's regional director for the agency, screened them. According to Artis' reports, she inspected their home, talked to their friends, reviewed their income statements.

In 1994, the Paddocks earned $43,000 a year cleaning carpets. Artis told the Paddocks that the state could offer help to ease the financial hardship of caring for a troubled child.

Artis probed into the Paddocks' childhoods. Johnny described his Army father's long absences and a reckless youth of smoking dope and drinking heavily.

Lynn told Artis that she had used alcohol to cope with life's challenges, the records show. She told Artis about the foster family who'd taken her in after she ran away from her abusive mother.

Paddock described her painful life with her mother. She said she'd been "spanked, hollered at or hit, sent to [her] room without eating."

Cleared to adopt

A few months after Artis met the Paddocks, she determined they were ideal adoptive parents.

She helped them adopt Tami, a 9-year-old in foster care in Wilmington. By 1997, the Paddocks asked to adopt a boy. Artis launched another round of paperwork, and within a year, they welcomed Ray, then 8.

In 2002, the Paddocks called Artis to ask for a group of siblings. By then, much in their lives had changed.

Paddock had begun homeschooling Jessy, Tami and Ray. The family had left its Baptist church in Raleigh and found a smaller, fundamentalist church in Sanford that advocated wearing long dresses and shutting out popular culture. Lynn Paddock had turned to the advice of Michael Pearl, a minister from Tennessee who advises parents to whip children with plastic plumbing supply line; Paddock put a piece of it in every room of the house.

The Paddocks had also moved to a farm in rural Johnston County. The family of five shared a single bathroom in the 1,200-square-foot home; they hoped to finish the attic and convert it into a bedroom.

Artis extolled their new house in a pre-placement adoption report in 2002.

"The home has lots of character and open space. There are large windows, which allow lots of light into the home," Artis said. "They are convenient to area shopping, educational and medical facilities."

In 2003, soon after the Paddocks had been approved for another adoption, Artis phoned. She had a troubled girl who needed a home right away.

The next day, the Paddocks and Artis traveled to a Raleigh mental hospital to pick up their newest daughter, 5-year-old Kayla.

With four children, the Paddocks still wanted more, preferably a sibling group of four or five, according to Artis' reports. Artis returned in 2004 to prepare another assessment.

For the new report, Artis repeated everything from her 2002 pre-placement assessment. She inserted a few lines about Kayla, their new daughter. But everything else, including descriptions of the children, now two years older, was identical to her 2002 assessment.

Artis did not return calls for this story. At Paddock's trial, Artis testified that she'd been deceived by the family, that Paddock had never told her that she beat her children. Artis wept as she looked at pictures of the children's battered bodies.

Barth, the social work professor, said Artis' reports revealed a number of troubling risk factors in the Paddocks' home.

"It is unbelievable that an additional child would have been placed in a home like that," Barth said.

Relying on trust, faith

As part of Children's Home Society's contract with the state Division of Social Services, officials from the state DSS audits the agency each year. It's a technical audit, though, designed to ensure that the agency performed the services it billed for. Before 2003, state officials didn't even keep a record of their monitoring visits, said Esther High, who supervised the auditors for the state DSS until her retirement last fall.

"A lot of this relies on trust and faith between agencies," High said in 2006, after Sean's death.

In January 2005, DSS official Tamika Williams went to inspect several of Children's Home Society's adoption files. She reviewed the file for David, Sean's brother. She checked a box indicating that Children's Home Society provided "appropriate/quality services."

DSS officials and Children's Home Society leaders declined to comment for this report, citing a pending civil claim for Sean's death. A DSS spokeswoman did say that since Sean's death the agency has not changed they way it supervises or audits private agencies such as Children's Home Society. This year, Children's Home Society secured $1.5 million in contracts to help the state find adoptive homes for foster children.

Goodbye to family

In October 2004, Artis heard that the Ford children -- Sean was then 3, Hannah 6 and David 8 -- needed new parents. Artis called a Wake County social worker to recommend the Paddocks and their farm.

Wake County workers weren't sure about the match, Arlette Lambert, a social worker, testified at Paddock's trial. The children's court-appointed guardian worried that the children would feel isolated on the Paddocks' remote farm. The Paddock children were quiet; the Fords were noisy. Paddock home-schooled her children; how would David and Hannah, special education students, do there?

But Children's Home Society prevailed in its pitch for the Paddocks, and Wake County social workers readied the children for their first visit.

Sean left that visit with a bruise on his backside, according to Wake County records. He told his foster mother and a day-care teacher that Paddock hit him because he petted the family dog.

Wake County opened an investigation and asked Johnston County social workers to check on the older Paddock children. It also asked Children's Home Society to talk with Paddock.

Artis explained in her report to Wake County that Sean had a temper tantrum during his visit to the Paddocks. She said Paddock put him down for a nap, and he fell out of the bunk bed.

Two weeks later, Wake County agreed to go forward with the adoption. By mid-March, the Ford children were sent to live with the Paddocks for good.

Wake County officials declined to comment, citing the pending lawsuit.

The day Sean and his siblings left for the Paddocks, they visited with their aunt and uncle, Ron and Lee Anne Ford. They had looked after the children when they were first taken from their parents in 2002; the couple went broke caring for them.

Ron and Lee Anne Ford snapped photos of their niece and nephews and made them scrapbooks.

Ron Ford said he begged the social worker to leave the children with him.

Ford remembers her words: "There's nothing you can do. At 12:05, you will no longer be their family. They will be adopted."

A social worker pulled 3-year-old Sean out of Lee Anne Ford's arms and drove him to Smithfield.

The next time the Fords saw him, Sean was lying in a coffin, tiny and blue.

mandy.locke@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-8927

2008 Jun 29