MARICOPA, Ariz. – A woman who operated a popular YouTube channel featuring kids is facing allegations she used pepper spray to discipline her seven adopted children, and locked them for days in a closet at their home outside Phoenix, authorities said Wednesday.
Machelle Hobson’s children had no food, water or access to a bathroom whenever they were sequestered in a closet, according to a police report.
Officers who went to the house last Wednesday reported that children appeared malnourished and underweight. The Arizona Department of Child Safety removed the seven children from the home the following day, and Hobson and two of her adult sons were arrested on Friday.
The child safety officials declined to answer questions about any prior contacts or complaints related to Hobson, citing confidentiality laws.
Hobson has four biological children who are adults and seven adopted children. Authorities haven’t identified the gender of the younger children, but Maricopa Police Department spokesman Ricardo Alvarado said they ranged in age from 3 to 15.
One of Hobson’s adult daughters spoke with police a week ago about an allegation that her younger sister had been abused, prompting authorities to make a welfare check at the home.
A call Wednesday afternoon to Hobson’s attorney, Richard Scherb, seeking comment on behalf of his client wasn’t immediately returned.
The police report said the children described being disciplined if they did not perform as instructed for the channel, which has received millions of views across 36 videos. The channel also has related Instagram and Facebook accounts.
YouTube on Wednesday terminated the channel, posting a message that it had violated YouTube’s community guidelines. The videos featured simple skits about such things as children stealing cookies or a little boy with superpowers.
Spokespeople for Instagram and Facebook did not immediately respond to request for comment about the accounts, which appeared to still be active.
Police said the children were taken out of school so they could keep filming the video series and hadn’t been back in school for years, according to court records.
During a search of the house, investigators said they found two cans of pepper spray in Hobson’s bedroom.
Hobson, 48, remained jailed Wednesday on a $200,000 bond on suspicion of two counts of molestation of a child, seven counts of child abuse and five counts of unlawful imprisonment and child neglect. She is due in court Tuesday for a preliminary hearing.
Two adult sons, Logan and Ryan Hackney, were booked on suspicion of failing to report abuse of a minor. They were later released after posting bond.
The law firm of Jackson White, which is representing Ryan and Logan Hackney, declined to comment on behalf of their clients.
In Maricopa, about 35 miles (55 kilometres) south of Phoenix, neighbours on the quiet, suburban street where Hobson lived were reeling from the news. Sarisa Fragua said she rarely saw the woman or her children since they moved in two years ago. They never played outside like other children in the neighbourhood. They were usually only seen going from the car to the house.
Fragua did recall seeing the children filming a video outside last summer. One of Hobson’s adult sons was directing the kids on a pathway behind Fragua’s backyard, she said. The children, some of whom were in costume, appeared unhappy anytime the camera wasn’t on them, she said.
“They would just stand there. They didn’t want to be there. You could tell that,” Fragua said. “It was just weird but I didn’t think anything of it.”
The son’s interactions with them were terse but did not seem abusive, Fragua said.
No one answered the door at the Hobson home, a two-story house in a bedroom community of beige, stucco family homes. There were cars in the driveway and unopened packages addressed to Hobson piled on the porch.
Billeaud reported from Phoenix. Associated Press writer Anita Snow in Phoenix contributed to this report.
This story has been changed to correct Machelle Hobson’s name from Machelle Hackney.