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Orphans' bid to save home by bankruptcy getting complicated Amid custody fight, independent guardian appointed by judge


It sounds like a modern-day Dickens tale -- a 10-year-old orphan filing for bankruptcy -- but could yet wind up with a Disneyesque ending.

The orphan is Shawn Powell, whose father died in February of liver failure, a year after his mother was killed in a car crash. He filed for bankruptcy six months later to stave off foreclosure on the Laurel home where he and his brother and sister grew up.

As one of the youngest people in the nation to file for bankruptcy, Shawn has attracted national media attention.

And as if bankruptcy weren't enough, Shawn and his brother, Ray Jr., 13, and sister Tracy, 9, are in the middle of a bitter guardianship battle. The battle pits an uncle, Jeffrey Powell, who moved in with the boys after their father's death, against an adult half-sister, Tasha Kelly, who is caring for Tracy in her Silver Spring home. The arrangement has kept the children from having much contact with each other.

Yesterday, a Prince George's County judge said he would appoint an independent guardian of the children's property, which consists mostly of the proceeds from their father's $100,000 life insurance policy.

Prince George's Circuit Judge G. R. Hovey Johnson declined to name either party guardian of the children, saying instead he wanted the court's family division to decide on a custody arrangement after a full investigation and hearing.

"Why does a court have to intervene for something that is common sense? I want the children to have full access to one another," Johnson said.

It is unclear what effect Johnson's decision will have on Shawn's bankruptcy petition -- which proposes to use the proceeds from the insurance policy to pay off back payments of about $19,000 on the $120,000 mortgage.

Last month, a bankruptcy trustee postponed a decision on the plan until after the appointment of a guardian, which is needed before the insurance money can be collected. A hearing has been set for next month.

Brett Weiss -- an attorney for Shawn, Ray Jr. and Jeffrey Powell -- said the decision would resolve the bankruptcy case, which has been awaiting disposition since late August.

"Once the money comes in [from the insurance policy], the bankruptcy is not necessary," he said.

Catherine Bouchard, the trust attorney for Prince George's Circuit Court, said the court-appointed property guardian may not approve the bankruptcy plan Weiss conceived on behalf of )) the Powell boys. He could decide to let the house be sold at foreclosure.

"It's up to the guardian to decide what's the best financial plan," Bouchard said.

Both Weiss and the attorney for Kelly said they hoped they could agree on an amicable custody arrangement.

"We are all hoping we can work it out in the best interests of the children," said Barbara Palmer, Kelly's attorney.

Shawn and Ray Jr. were in the courthouse yesterday, but did not appear in the courtroom. Tracy didn't come to court.

"We weren't in there so we don't know anything about it," Shawn said after the guardianship hearing.

RTC Shawn's unusual bankruptcy petition has made him and his brother mini-celebrities, the subject of Washington-area newspaper and television reports and interviews with Barbara Walters and Montel Williams.

"I didn't like being on the news, but I liked going to New York," Shawn said.

Shawn's bankruptcy filing in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt is notable for his rounded, boyish signature on the sheaf of required legal documents and for his poignant listing of personal property -- toys, $100, clothes, $100, and income of $327 a month in Social Security payments.

Weiss filed the petition on Shawn's behalf on Aug. 18, a day before Midland Mortgage Co. of Oklahoma City had threatened to foreclose on the Laurel home, bringing the planned proceedings to a halt.

Efforts to reach the Maryland attorney representing Midland in the case were unsuccessful yesterday, but Weiss said he didn't blame the company for taking action. "They do what mortgage companies do in these cases," he said.

In fact, he said, the company has arranged for payments to be deferred until October.

But that still leaves the unpaid bills, most of which piled up in the last year of life of Ray Powell Sr., the children's father, who spent money on fancy cars and neglected his $1,353 monthly mortgage bill.

"After his wife died, he basically imploded," Weiss said.

Earlier this week, the stress of the situation began to tell on Jeffrey Powell, Ray Sr.'s younger brother, who abruptly called off a pair of media interviews.

Yesterday, Jeffrey Powell spoke quietly but forcefully about his hopes for his brother's children.

"The only thing I want is for the kids to have a fresh start," he said.

Earlier this week, Tasha Kelly spoke just as firmly.

"I've been portrayed badly," she said. "I'm the Grinch. But I don't care about the money. I just want to be able to be a family."

Pub Date: 12/19/98

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