03/10/06 — Nowhere to turn: For Sean Paddock, questions come too late

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Nowhere to turn: For Sean Paddock, questions come too late

As expected, fingers are already starting to point in the case of the Johnston County woman whose “discipline” of her 4-year-old adopted son ended in his death.

Some family members of the children who were taken from their biological parents for various reasons — including sexual abuse by their father — are questioning why Wake County Child Protective Services did not investigate the potential adoptive parents more thoroughly.

They claim the 4-year-old came back from a visit with Lynn Paddock before the adoption, while she was his foster parent, with a bruise on his buttocks. He claimed it was from punishment. Wake County social workers said the injury came when he fell off a bunk bed.

Protecting children from abusers is not an exact science. Abusive parents in general are good at covering their tracks and keeping appearances normal. Sometimes the evidence just isn’t there to suggest that there is an imminent danger to the welfare of the child in their care.

Perhaps there was incompetence here. And if this system is failing, maybe we need to look harder at the standards by which children are placed in foster care — and how we are judging the people who take care of them.

And maybe, while we are at it, we should look a little closer, too, at the foster care and children’s services efforts in general. There are many children who must be cared for, and limited availability of people to take care of them.

If the number of children in improper and unsafe homes continues to increase, we as a state and nation need to figure out a better way to make sure they are cared for by loving relatives or substitute parents of some kind.

And while we are asking questions, perhaps we should look a little closer at the Paddock children’s case — and its broader implications.

These are children who had family members who could have cared for them. Why were they in foster care in the first place? Did the system impede the family’s efforts to take care of these children? Would having resources available have made it possible for the children to be with their relatives instead of in foster care?

Or was there no one who felt they could adequately care for the children?

There might have been legitimate reasons why the family could not take care of Sean Paddock and his siblings, but the reality is, they became wards of the state because no one was there to speak for them.

And that is a tragedy in itself. No children should be left alone with an abuser and have nowhere to turn.

They also had relatives who were in the area. Were they not in contact with the children? Or, did the system prevent any contact once the children were adopted?

Armed with information, this child’s biological family could have headed straight for the authorities to file a report of suspected abuse or neglect. The children might have felt more comfortable sharing their sadness and fear with an aunt or uncle rather than a social worker.

The tragedy of this story is partially that there was no communication, that a child dying is how the state discovered this woman was an unfit adoptive parent.

But even more heart-wrenching is that these children were abused not just once, but twice. That is a statistic this state should not tolerate.

The family of these children is in no way responsible for the tragic end to Sean Paddock’s life. They weren’t the ones who tied the blanket too tight or spanked too hard.

But as we look at the problem of foster care in this country, we need to think about how many children with options in their own biological families find themselves with no choices and nowhere to go.

Responsibility begins with the decision to bring a child into the world in the first place, and then having the decency to care for him or her in an appropriate manner.

But when that first option fails, if more people were given the support they needed to take responsibility for some of these forgotten children, there might not be so many who are lost in the foster care system.

If Sean Paddock’s story makes even one person think about children who need homes and love, his memory will be forever associated with something good instead of the horrible way he died.

Published in Editorials on March 10, 2006 10:53 AM