It was seven years ago that child social workers, acting on an anonymous tip, first tried to confirm the existence of young siblings purportedly living in squalor and secrecy in York City.
"No one knew they existed," York City Detective First Class Dana Ward said. "We don't even know their true ages."
York County Children and Youth Services tried again in 2007 to find the children, and once again in 2009, without success. After their third attempt, they notified the child-abuse unit of York City Police, according to court documents.
"They had the children locked up in the house," the detective said. "We can't just bust in the door."
On Aug. 28, 2009, Ward and a Children and Youth caseworker finally found the children.
There are five of them now, ranging in age from about 2 to 13 years old, all the children of Sinhue A. Johnson and Louann E. Bowers, according to court documents.
The children are now in foster care, and their parents are in York County Prison, charged with child endangerment.
Court documents state the children aren't at their expected education levels and there are possible mental-health issues with some of them.
They have no birth certificates, were never enrolled in school, never received medical care or vaccinations and had no documentation to prove they existed, police said; no records of home-schooling exist either.
'Squalor': For years, they lived in squalor at 734 S. Duke St. with no heat, no electric service, no water, no functioning toilet and a leaky roof, documents state.
But the Johnson family, aware of social workers' attempts
to find the children, fled that building in July 2009, officials said. Owned by Johnson's sister, the building was condemned in July 2009 by York City, according to Ward.
Ward and Children and Youth caseworker Jenna Triscari found the children hiding in the bathroom of an East York motel, police said, and Bowers was also there. She refused to answer questions about her children, but did provide their names, court documents state.
Ward tried to speak with the children, but they told him they weren't permitted to talk about their home and family, according to documents. All five children were taken into protective custody by Children and Youth workers and remain in foster care, Ward said.
Kids OK: "They're doing well," Children and Youth caseworker Jenna Enterline told District Judge Ronald Haskell Jr. during Johnson's preliminary hearing Thursday.
Four siblings are in one foster home, she said; the eldest is in a separate foster home.
"I believe the children's quality of life has greatly improved," Ward said. "They're in school now. They've gotten their vaccinations and their dental care. ... It was very obvious their education level was way below where it should be."
Johnson, 45, and Bowers, 33, are each charged with five counts of child endangerment, one count for each child. They remain in York County Prison, Johnson on $50,000 bail and Bowers on $40,000 bail.
They also are charged with carrying a firearm without a license in an unrelated incident, court records state, and Johnson has a third case in which he is charged with theft of leased property.
Trial ahead: On Thursday, Bowers waived her right to a preliminary hearing in the child-endangerment case, which is now headed to trial in York County Court. The judge determined enough evidence exists in Johnson's child-endangerment case for him to stand trial as well.
Both are scheduled for court arraignment Dec. 3.
Triscari testified that when she tried to make contact with the Johnson family at 734 S. Duke St. on July 1, 2009, no one would answer the door, although she could hear the voices of a man, a woman and at least one child inside.
Eventually, Johnson came out and began yelling at her, she said.
"He told me I would never see the children," Triscari testified.
'Covered in filth': She said she and Ward returned to the home the next day, but Johnson refused to speak with them. Triscari testified she and Ward returned a few hours later with a court order, but the family was gone.
"Everything was in complete disarray, covered in filth," Ward said of the home's interior. "It appeared the entire family was residing in a second-floor room."
The building's other rooms were uninhabitable because of clutter and structural deficiencies, he said.
In the room where the family allegedly lived, Ward found children's clothing, dishes, pots and pans and a kerosene heater that was apparently used to cook on, he said. He also found one double bed and a set of bunk beds.
Water source? In another room, he found sheets of plastic hung to catch rain that leaked through the ceiling, Ward said. Rainwater that collected in the plastic sheets was funneled into buckets, he said.
"It appears that's how they were getting water," Ward said, as there was no water service to the building.
It would be nearly two more months before Triscari and Ward found the children at the motel room.
Enterline testified she has been unable to find birth certificates, school records or medical records for the children in Pennsylvania. She said the parents told her the children were born in Washington, D.C., but that they couldn't remember or didn't know the name of the hospitals.
"They don't think they did anything wrong," Ward said of Johnson and Bowers.
Religion cited: The detective said they are citing religious reasons for not having the children enrolled in school.
"They claim it's a religion they're involved with," he said, adding he was unable to find any reference to a religion with the name Johnson and Bowers gave.
"But we're not concerned with the motive," he said. "We're concerned that the children have been deprived of education and health care."
Ward, who has investigated crimes against children for nearly 17 years, said cases with similar circumstances are rare.
"There are issues all the time, but never this many children for this long a period, with complete isolation from everything," he said. "Neighbors reported they never saw the children outside, and no one knew they existed."
Denies allegations: Johnson told The York Dispatch he did not endanger his children.
He said birth certificates do exist for them, but he refused to say in what state. He also maintains the children never lived at 734 S. Duke St.
"They was never found there at that house," Johnson said. "The kids didn't live in that house. They lived out of state."
Johnson declined to discuss his religion.
-- Reach Elizabeth Evans at firstname.lastname@example.org, 505-5429 or twitter.com/ydcrimetime.