Adopted family’s fate rests in Oklahoma judge’s hands
Five Liberian sisters at center of child abuse case in Major County
BY ANN KELLEY
FAIRVIEW — It was a brisk winter day in the country, but the weather wasn’t enough to keep three little girls indoors. They danced with hands clasped in the field outside their two-story log cabin, before running to the back door.
Penny Tyler opens the door for one of her adopted children at the home of her and husband, Ardee Tyler, west of Fairview. The couple are accused of abusing one of their adopted Liberian daughters. PHOTO BY JIM BECKEL, THE OKLAHOMAN
They’re among the five Liberian-born sisters who lived in this picturesque postcard of Americana. That was until one of the girls, age 13, accused her adopted family of abuse. Now the sisters are one dancer short.
The fate of the five sisters, ages 5 to 16, and the family that adopted them is scheduled to be decided today in Major County District Court.
Ardee Verlon Tyler, 51, and his wife, Penny Tyler, 46, are charged with felony child abuse. Their son, Ashton Malachi Tyler, 20, is charged with rape by instrumentation. Their daughter, Nathania Dellare Tyler, 21, is charged with misdemeanor assault and battery. All have pleaded no contest.
The Oklahoman attempted to speak with Penny Tyler on Wednesday outside her home. She said at the advice of her attorney she could not comment but did say that her main concern is the welfare of her daughters.
The case has been lingering in the court system since October 2008, along with a deprived juvenile case involving the girls the Tylers adopted in 2005 from an orphanage in the African nation of Liberia.
The defendants are allowing a judge to determine their sentence. After that, the courtroom will be closed so a judge can decide what should happen to the adopted children, Assistant District Attorney Tim Haworth said.
Four of the sisters continue to live with the Tylers. The 13-year-old at the focus of the case is living with a relative in Illinois.
According to court records, she said she was tied to chairs and bedrails as punishment and forced to fast. At age 11, she was made to sleep outside after taking a cookie from a kitchen cabinet. The girl also told authorities she was molested by her adopted brother.
Haworth said the family has never denied the abuse or made excuses for their behavior. He is planning to ask the judge that Ardee Tyler, Penny Tyler and their son be punished with 20-year prison sentences.
A quiet, rural community
The city of Fairview is the largest in Major County, with a population of about 2,800 people, about 97 percent white, according to the last U.S. Census. Its religious influence is strong, with large churches, billboards praising God and Bible leaflets in public rest rooms.
Fairview residents seem to be trying not to let the Tyler case ruin the clean image of their rural community. While many professed to know about the criminal case, they were not willing to share their opinions with outsiders. They spoke only of the "good schools” in Fairview and their love of its small-town pace.
One woman, who asked that her name not be used, said there are strong and differing feelings by many residents about what should happen to the girls and the Tylers.
She said she and others are withholding their opinions for fear of offending a neighbor or fellow church member who may think differently.
Several people watching case
The Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth has been monitoring the state Department of Human Services’ handling of the case, but their findings are confidential, said commission director Lisa Smith.
Among those watching is a grassroots group that has been instrumental in bringing the alleged abuse to the forefront. They are self-proclaimed "average citizens” and "prayer warriors” who meet weekly at a member’s home to pray for the sisters.
One of its members is retired teacher Janice Wichert, who once helped home school the girls.
In a September interview, she told The Oklahoman that Penny Tyler often spoke to the girls harshly and the girls would bow their head as if to avoid eye contact when Tyler entered the room.
Wichert said when the girls were allowed to visit her home they acted like "normal children” and eventually told her about being hit with rakes and hoes and being made to fast by their parents.
The grassroots group has made connections with other Liberian-born U.S. citizens and caught the attention of Liberian-born attorney Melvin Johnson of Atlanta.
Recently, a judge gave Johnson permission to help represent the girls in the child welfare case. He said he met with his clients for the first time in their home Jan. 24 and didn’t like what he saw.
He said their behavior was robotic and answers to his questions rehearsed. Worst of all, the girls have turned against their sister, who no longer lives with them, he said.
"The 6-year-old said her sister is evil because she stole a cookie,” Johnson said. "She said it over and over again, her ‘sister is evil.’”
The sisters’ reunion also was disappointing. Rather than hugs and tears, the 13-year-old was shunned by the others, he said.
Johnson said he hopes that if the girls are out of the Tyler home, their relationship can be rebuilt.