The five sisters were adopted in 2005 from a Liberian orphanage operated by the West African Children Support Network.
The children’s father, James Andrew, took them to the orphanage after their mother died giving birth to the youngest, said Linda Rous, a member of a local grassroots group spearheading an effort to help the girls.
It was his hope that his daughters would be adopted by a family in the United States, where they would have opportunities that didn’t exist for them in impoverished Liberia. He specifically asked that they not be separated and that he be allowed to communicate with them regularly, Rous said.
The U.S. State Department in January reported the West African Children Support Network, founded by Liberian-born Maria Luyken of Eden Prairie, Minn., was ordered by the Liberian government to suspend operations. The Liberian government is investigating whether the organization is properly caring for children.
Melvin Johnson, a Liberian-born attorney from Atlanta, has agreed to represent the children in the deprived juvenile case. He was recruited by a Liberian-American friend who knew of the situation.
Johnson was in Fairview two weeks ago asking a judge to assign him as the children’s advocate and requesting court records. He said his primary objective is to move the girls out of the Tyler home.
Johnson said he recently spoke with the girls’ father, and Andrew had no idea of the problems the girls are having. He was even more troubled to hear his four daughters are separated from their 13-year-old sister.
Also watching the case is a local grassroots group, known as Weep No More. The group is made up of several witnesses in the case and is credited with bringing the girls’ story to the forefront.
Its members have rallied local authorities, constructed a Web site for the girls and requested help from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, state and U.S. attorneys general and the Internal Revenue Service.
Angela Molette, president of the Garfield County NAACP, compiled a 28-page report of her findings on the Tyler children. She alleges the children are part of an international child trafficking scam where Americans buy children to turn into slaves.
Molette alleges the Tylers paid $30,000 to $40,000 for the children, and got financial help from their church for the adoption.
Teacher remembers the children
Retired teacher Janice Winchert said she helped homeschool the children beginning in the fall of 2006, and immediately felt tension in the Tyler house.
Winchert said Penny Tyler spoke harshly to the girls and admonished them for the smallest mistakes. The girls were quiet and kept their heads bowed as if trying to avoid a confrontation with their adoptive mother.
The girls’ personalities changed when they visited Winchert’s home without members of the Tyler family. Winchert said they played and laughed, and opened up about their home life with the Tylers. The girls talked about being hit with rakes and hoes, and being made to fast for several days as punishment.
They told her several times they wanted to run away, she said.
Winchert said that in spring 2008, the Tylers began limiting contact between her and the girls. She was told she was no longer needed to help with their schooling and visits to her home were prohibited. When she tried to visit them, she was stopped at the Tylers’ front door, she said.
The Tylers also withdrew their membership from the church where Winchert and others had come to know the sisters.
In January 2008, Winchert, her husband and her pastor confronted the Tylers about the girls’ stories of abuse.
"They never denied it,” Winchert said. "They just kept repeating, ‘you don’t understand what we’re dealing with here.’”
Girl is doing well
Barbara Johnson said for two years she’s taken care of the 13-year-old girl that is the focus of the criminal case against the Tylers. Johnson, a cousin to Penny Tyler, said the Tylers asked her to take the girl home with her to Illinois because they were having problems controlling her behavior.
Johnson, who calls the girl her daughter, says she’s doing well in public school and thriving on the track team.
"She’s not a perfect angel. She’s a strong-willed child,” Johnson said. "That’s why she couldn’t live under their roof. She’s not the kind to cower.”
Johnson said the girl has written her sisters several times, but doesn’t think the letters are reaching them. Two weeks ago, she spoke with her father on the telephone for the first time in four years, she said.
"Sometimes she’ll just scream and cry, she misses them so much,” Johnson said.
"Most of all she worries about their safety.”
Johnson said she’s a licensed foster parent in Illinois and would take all the girls, if the court is willing.