KANE — The Mount Jewett residents charged with starving their three adopted children will face endangerment charges in McKean County Court.
Mark Hooper, 43, and Susan Hooper, 40, both of 21 Anderson St., are each charged with three counts of endangering the welfare of children, third-degree felonies — one for each of the three children, an 11-year-old girl, 10-year-old boy and 9-year-old girl.
District Judge David Engman bound all the charges over to court Wednesday after a preliminary hearing lasting more than three hours. During the hearing, all three children testified, as did their biological grandmother, a neighbor of the Hoopers’ in Mount Jewett, two investigators from McKean County Children and Youth Services, the children’s current foster father and Kane-based state trooper Mary Gausman.
The children were all very small and thin, barely able to see over the sides of the witness box in the courtroom. Each told of a life of fear with the Hoopers, of harsh punishments involving missed meals or spankings with a paddle or a belt. The boy said he had been hit in the head and on the side with pots and pans.
They told heart-wrenching stories of meals withheld because the girls didn’t brush their hair correctly, or the home-schooled children failed to complete their assignments on time, or because the children weren’t allowed to use the restroom and were punished when they had accidents.
The two younger children told of punishments where Susan Hooper would lace oatmeal with red pepper and make them eat it, without anything to drink.
The three testified about sneaking food to each other when it was being withheld from one, and begging food from a neighbor. None of them had seen a doctor while living with the Hoopers, they said.
Suzanne Brecheen of Cosby, Tenn., was the first to testify at the hearing. The biological grandmother of the children, she was their caregiver before she had to give them up in 2007.
“When I was taking care of them, they always saw the doctor and got their vaccinations,” Brecheen testified. “They did not have any health issues.”
She explained she knew the Hoopers through her church, as Mark Hooper was an apprentice to the pastor of her church.
“I wanted a safe, secure environment for the kids,” she said. Brecheen said her daughter was a “battered wife,” and was unable to care for the children. She cared for them herself, but after her husband died, she had to travel for work and was no longer able to give the children the home they deserved, she said.
“I wanted them to have a mother and a daddy and a good, stable environment.”
She thought she had found it with the Hoopers, Brecheen said. And she understood that she would remain involved in the children’s lives. That didn’t happen, she explained. She last saw the children in 2008, before the Hoopers moved from Tennessee to New Hampshire — without telling her where they were going. Brecheen managed to track them down and called Susan Hooper, who wouldn’t let her speak to the children.
She was concerned about the children, Brecheen said, because she felt there were too thin when she saw them last. When the Hoopers moved to Pennsylvania, first to Smethport and then Mount Jewett, they did inform Brecheen, but she still wasn’t able to see the children. The first time she saw them was after CYS removed the children from the Hoopers’ home in February.
“I was flabbergasted,” Brecheen testified. “I was in total shock. They looked like something out of the Holocaust. They were so gaunt.”
The eldest child was the second to testify. In her estimation, the youngest child — the one who eventually ran away to a neighbor’s house and alerted authorities — missed the most meals and had the most punishment. The boy testified next. He said he and his younger sister had crafted the plan to run away to try to escape from the missed meals and abuse.
He also said CYS came to the Hoopers’ home several times before the children were taken out of the home. Under testimony later in the hearing, CYS workers said the children showed no signs of physical abuse when they visited the home, and could not give details of specific incidents when they had gone without food.
When the youngest child testified, she said Susan Hooper told them CYS came back to the home “because we’d been running our mouths off” to the CYS investigators.
She explained when she ran away, her brother was supposed to go with her. He didn’t because Mark Hooper came home before the boy could get out of the house. She hid in a neighbor’s shed until Mark Hooper was inside his home, then knocked on the door. When that neighbor didn’t answer, she went to another house.
“I had some money with me,” she said. “I thought I might need it.”
That money was 38 cents, explained CYS investigator Shannon Maybury, who was called to the home where the child sought refuge after running away. “She said she didn’t know how much shelter would cost,” Maybury testified.
Maybury called her supervisor to see what could be done, as the child was afraid to go home. She told her supervisor the child was very small; the supervisor said to weigh her. The child weighed 31.4 pounds at 9 years of age. “I took her to the emergency room that night,” Maybury said.
All three children were found to be malnourished and to have growth disorders because of it.
Both she and the children’s current foster father said the children have grown since they were taken from the Hoopers’ home.
Last on the stand was Gausman, who read into evidence the medical reports on the children from Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.
After testimony was completed, the Hoopers’ attorney, Alexander Lindsay Jr. of Butler, argued the case should be dismissed, saying the allegations did not rise to a criminal level. The prior visits by CYS, where the agency’s workers did not remove the children from the home, supported his argument, he said. He equated the Hoopers’ actions to “sending the kids to bed without supper.
“It’s important to understand this is not a hearing to determine if the children would be better off in a foster home,” he said. “This is not a hearing to determine if we would discipline our child in the same way.”
District Attorney Ray Learn, who prosecuted the case, disagreed. “One of the most basic things (in providing care to children) is food,” Learn said. “This is not a case about sending children to bed without dinner. This had severe consequences to the children who are only now, outside of that toxic environment, beginning to thrive.”
Every person who testified at the hearing noticed the children were too small for their ages, and every person in the community noticed the same thing. “Mark and Susan Hooper didn’t,” Learn said.
Engman agreed with Learn and bound the charges to court.
The Hoopers remain free on bail pending further court action.