Five children who were raised hidden from society in a squalid house with no heat, electricity or running water have been found by police. Officers in York, Pennsylvania, are now asking how and why the parents of the children – ranging in age from two to 13 – managed to conceal them for so long. Louann Bowers, 33, and Sinhue Johnson, 45, have been charged with five counts of child endangerment and are scheduled to appear in court for an arraignment hearing on Friday. They were arrested after police, acting on an anonymous tip-off, tracked down their children, who police said had no birth certificates, no schooling, no immunisations or evidence of medical care – nothing whatsoever to prove their existence. Detective Dana Ward Jr said: ‘I don’t know what would possess them at all.’ Bowers’ lawyer Ronald Gross said his client has waived her right to attend Friday’s court hearing.
He said she ran away from ‘a very chaotic household’ when she was 16 and ‘didn’t want to be found’. He added: ‘I think, unfortunately, Mom’s desire to not be found by her family impacted the children’s growth. ‘She realises now, “I should have done it differently.”‘ Years of isolation have taken their toll on the siblings.
Now living in foster homes, ‘some of the children suffer health and vision issues,’ Detectuve Ward wrote in an affidavit. ‘None of the children are at their expected education levels, and there are possible mental health issues.’ Since their discovery, the children have been vaccinated and the older ones have been enrolled in school. York County Children and Youth Services became aware of the family through anonymous tip-offs in 2003 and again in 2007, but police said Johnson refused to cooperate with caseworkers. The agency got another anonymous referral in 2009, this time from someone claiming to be a family member who had seen the children. The agency contacted Johnson again, but he remained uncooperative, court documents state. That led caseworkers to obtain a court order granting them permission to enter the family’s dilapidated house on South Duke Street. By the time they arrived, the family had fled.
Detective Ward said it appeared that all seven family members had lived in a single room on the second floor. He said all the utilities were shut off, while rainwater came through the leaky roof and was collected in buckets. Police tracked the family to a nearby hotel. Johnson was gone, but Bowers opened the door, her head concealed by a dark veil. The detective said he found the children hiding in a bathroom, three girls and two boys. They hadn’t bathed and appeared unkempt. They left with investigators without saying a word – and refused to provide any information. Detective Ward said: ‘They did say that they were not permitted to talk about the family or the living conditions.’
The lack of cooperation from either the children or Johnson and Bowers has stymied investigators’ efforts to learn more about the family’s circumstances. The fact that almost no one knew about the children is even more puzzling because of the urban setting in which they lived. Neighbours said they never saw them, not even once. Charlton Shaw, 56, a roofer who lives several doors down, said he was unaware of the children’s existence until Johnson and Bowers were arrested. He said: ‘I said, holy heck, how did they do that? You never heard a sound. No kids crying, no kids coming or going. How do you mess up the kids’ futures like that?’ Mr Gross disputed the notion that his client was hiding her children but acknowledged the family maintained a ‘very close network of individuals’.
He said the children were home-schooled, but Detective Ward said he could find no evidence of it. Parents of home-schooled children are required by law to register with the district in which they live, provide evidence of immunisations and follow approved curricula. Mr Gross said Bowers has studied more than 70 religions and adheres to a faith related to Islam. ‘She essentially doesn’t show her face, except to her husband,’ he said. He said the family opposes vaccinations ‘based on some beliefs about impurity and pricks of the skin’.
He declined to comment about the apparent lack of birth certificates