Father Gets Custody of Boy Hidden in Wall

Mother stashed son, 7, in crawl space when visitors came.

By Jim Suhr
|  Friday, Feb 19, 2010  |  Updated 7:30 PM CDT
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Ricky is pictured here with his biological father.

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A judge ruled Friday that custody of a "very resilient" 7-year-old boy hidden by his mother for nearly two years, often in a crawl space, should go to his father with the caveat that the court maintain oversight of the child.

Franklin County Circuit Judge Melissa Drew rejected awarding the boy to his mother, Shannon Wilfong, who moments earlier was described by the attorney for the boy's father as irrational.

"I don't think Ms. Wilfong is in touch with reality," Fred Turner argued in pressing that his client, Wilfong's former boyfriend Michael Chekevdia, deserved to have the boy.

Drew reiterated her previous finding that the child's two years in hiding until he was found last September in his grandmother's home amounted to neglect, citing his forced absence from schools and outside medical care.

Wilfong has done little until lately to cooperate with caseworkers, the judge added, citing the woman's refusal to give child-welfare officials her address and delay in agreeing to counseling.

"I find I have no other choice than to find her unfit" for custody, the judge said.

While deciding that the boy now can stay with Chekevdia, Drew ordered the child be a ward of the court so the family can continue getting state counseling. The judge scheduled a progress hearing for July 9.

The boy had been in a relative's temporary custody since being found last fall as Chekevdia sought custody.

Drew called the boy "very, very resilient" and "very strong," noting the child's weight gain and added muscle tone since his captivity ended. The boy no longer shoves other children, is "a friendly child with peers and adults, and he appears to be adjusting well with his placement in school and with his father," Drew said.

Wilfong's supervised visits with the boy have been only for about an hour once every three weeks, a caseworker testified Friday. Drew, siding with Wilfong's court-appointed attorney, Eric Dirnbeck, said the mother deserves increased time with the child if she complies better with child-welfare workers.

Wilfong, prone to outbursts during the months of the custody hearings, briefly interrupted Friday's proceedings by walking out while clutching a wad of tissues. Dirnbeck said she had been feeling ill. Wilfong, 30, declined comment afterward, saying only "I'm too sick right now to talk to anybody."

Authorities say Wilfong began hiding her son at her mother's house near Royalton in late 2007, stashing him in a crawl space -- roughly 5 feet by 12 feet, about the height of a washing machine -- whenever visitors came.

The home's windows were blocked off with shades or other items, and Drew has found the boy was deprived of contact with peers, medical care and education. Testimony showed the boy was allowed outside only at night or in a fenced-in area not visible to passers-by.

Authorities raided the home in September, found the boy, and arrested Wilfong and her mother, Diane Dobbs. Wilfong has been charged with felony abduction. Dobbs and her boyfriend, Robert Sandefur, both 51, are accused of aiding and abetting the alleged crime. All three have pleaded not guilty and are free on bond.

Dobbs contends Wilfong fled with the boy to protect him from abuse by Chekevdia, a former police officer and an Illinois National Guard lieutenant colonel. Chekevdia has rejected their allegations, as have state child welfare officials.

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