Adoption incentive prompts concerns
Death of 4-year-old boy in Johnston County highlights priorities that
may conflict as agencies recruit families.
By Mandy Locke
(Raleigh) News & Observer
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 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
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
In 2005, social workers declared the Paddocks' home the best place for
the Sean and his siblings 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 the children
were 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
Finding them would be difficult. Most of these children were damaged:
beaten, starved, molested. Persuading parents to adopt them would be a
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.
The state's relationship with Children's Home Society could be a
problem, said Richard 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.
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.
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.
A few months later, Artis 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 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 moved to a farm in rural Johnston County.
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 5-year-old Kayla.
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.
Sean left his first visit with the Paddocks 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
Wake County opened an investigation, but two weeks later, agreed to go
forward with the adoption. By mid-March, the Ford children were sent to
live with the Paddocks for good.