YORK, Pennsylvania — They lived outside society, hidden from the world in a squalid row house with no heat, electricity or running water. They had no birth certificates, no schooling, no immunizations or evidence of medical care — nothing whatsoever to prove their existence.
Police in this south-central Pennsylvania city are still piecing together how the parents of five children — ranging in age from 2 to 13 — managed to conceal them for so many years. And why.
“I don’t know what would possess them at all,” said detective Dana Ward Jr., who tracked down the children after a child welfare agency received an anonymous tip about the clandestine family.
Ward charged Louann Bowers, 33, and Sinhue Johnson, 45, with five felony counts of child endangerment. They are scheduled to be in court Friday, though Bowers’ lawyer said she will waive her right to an arraignment. Both are locked up in York County Prison.
Bowers ran away from “a very chaotic household” when she was 16 and “didn’t want to be found,” attorney Ronald Gross said.
“I think, unfortunately, Mom’s desire to not be found by her family impacted the children’s growth,” he said. “She realizes now, ‘I should have done it differently.’”
Johnson’s public defender did not return a phone message seeking comment on the case, which was first reported by The York Dispatch and York Daily Record.
Years of isolation have taken their toll on the siblings. Now living in foster homes, “some of the children suffer health and vision issues,” 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 tips 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 dilapidated house on South Duke Street. By the time they arrived, the family had fled.
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. Rainwater came through the leaky roof and was collected in buckets.
Police tracked the family to a hotel outside York. Johnson was gone, but Bowers opened the door, her head concealed by a dark veil. The detective 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.
“They did say that they were not permitted to talk about the family or the living conditions,” Ward said.
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. Neighbors say 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. “I said, holy heck, how did they do that? You never heard a sound. No kids crying, no kids coming or going,” said Shaw, who has lived on the block for 10 years. “How do you mess up the kids’ futures like that?”
Gross disputed the notion that his client was hiding her children but acknowledged the family maintained a “very close network of individuals.”
Gross said the children were home-schooled, but 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 immunizations and follow approved curricula.
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,” Gross 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.
“She understands she had some shortcomings as a parent, but her love and desire to have the children and wanting to be there for her children has not changed,” Gross said.
Gross said Johnson was in the midst of rehabbing the house on South Duke Street, and that the family spent most of its time in Washington, D.C. But Ward said he could find no evidence the family ever lived in Washington.
“There are still a lot of unanswered questions from our end,” Ward said, “because no one will talk to us.”