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.
Never miss a local story.
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.
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 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 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.
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 dog.
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.