Children testify in Hooper case
By MARCIE SCHELLHAMMER
SMETHPORT — A hearing was held Friday in McKean County Court to determine whether the charges should stand against the Mount Jewett couple accused of starving their three adopted children.
However, Senior Judge John Cleland did not issue a ruling on the matter Friday afternoon, but rather took the matter under advisement.
Mark Hooper, 43, and Susan Hooper, 40, walked into the McKean County Courthouse holding hands, but sat apart during the hearing, each with their own attorney. She is represented by attorney Alexander Lindsay Jr. He is represented by attorney Joseph Charlton.
Both are facing three charges each of endangering the welfare of children.
Two of the children in question testified during the brief hearing, a 9-year-old girl and an 11-year-old boy. Senior Judge John Cleland held a brief competency hearing with each child before agreeing the children were competent to testify.
District Attorney Ray Learn asked only a few questions of each child. “While living with the Hoopers, did you ever visit the doctor?” Both children said no.
The boy told Learn he remembered visiting a doctor with his grandmother in Tennessee, before he was adopted by the Hoopers, and the next time was when he and his sisters were taken from the Hoopers by caseworkers with McKean County Children and Youth Services.
The girl echoed her brother’s comments, saying she, too, visited a doctor with her grandmother. Learn asked her when the next time was that she visited a doctor. “When I ran away,” she said.
On Feb. 11, the girl ran away from the Hoopers’ home and went to a neighbor’s residence; the neighbors summoned police. The girl weighed only 31 pounds at the time. Her siblings were removed from the home shortly thereafter by CYS caseworkers.
Following the testimony, each attorney argued his position to Cleland.
Charlton, who argued in his brief that Mark Hooper was not implicated in the testimony at the preliminary hearing, asked for a dismissal of the charges against his client.
“Missing a meal alone is not — in and of itself — proof of endangering the welfare of a child,” Charlton said, indicating his client did nothing criminal. “It’s a matter of degree.”
Referring to the transcript of the preliminary hearing, Charlton said the children did not say Mark Hooper withheld meals from them.
He also argued that medical evidence presented at the preliminary hearing should be excluded, as it was read into the record by Trooper Mary Gausman, and not presented by the medical expert who prepared it.
Alexander argued his case next, saying, “The end all, be all is the medical testimony.”
The testimony, if presented by the physician who prepared it, would have been “critical evidence that (the Hoopers) knew they were endangering the children. That opinion has to be stated” by the physician, who can then be cross-examined by the defense attorneys, Alexander argued.
Learn disagreed, saying the standard of proof at a preliminary hearing is not the same as it is at trial.
“At a preliminary hearing, the veracity of a witness is not tested,” the prosecutor explained. “It is not beneficial for judicial economy to have an expert come in and read his testimony from a piece of paper.”
The physician will be available at trial, Learn said.
Regarding the culpability of both Hoopers in the matter, Learn said, “Those are parents who have joint custody of the children, live in the same household, see the children day after day.”
Both were able to see the physical impacts the malnutrition had on the children, Learn alleged. “Mr. Hooper was present during meals when the children missed a feeding,” he added. “He’s just as culpable for tacit agreement. He has the same culpability as the co-defendant in the case.”
Cleland asked to speak to all the attorneys in his chambers and adjourned the hearing. It was not immediately clear when Cleland might issue a ruling in the case.
The charges came to light in February when the youngest of the three children ran away. The Hoopers were first charged with endangering her welfare. Subsequent charges were filed when CYS removed the other children from the home two days later.
At the hearing in April, the children described being afraid of Susan Hooper, saying she would withhold meals if the girls didn’t do their hair right or if the children didn’t get their homeschool assignments completed on time. The children weren’t allowed to use the bathroom, and would be punished for having accidents. The two younger children described punishments where Susan Hooper would feed them oatmeal laced with red pepper flakes and wouldn’t allow them to drink anything with it.
Both Hoopers remain free on bail.