By Matt Zapotosky and Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
Two children whose frozen bodies were found in Calvert County might have been dead for a year or more, hidden in a large freezer and moved from house to house since last fall by the adoptive mother suspected of killing them, authorities said yesterday.
Renee D. Bowman, 43, who arrived in Calvert in February, "indicated" in an interview that the bodies were in the freezer when she moved out of her former residence in the Rockville area, investigators have said. Yesterday, authorities revealed that she left that area last October or November and then stayed briefly in Prince George's or Charles County before moving to Calvert.
"At this point in time, everything is looking like she left Montgomery County with the freezer," said Detective Sgt. Michael Moore of the Calvert sheriff's office.
The case continued to raise questions about D.C. child welfare services yesterday, three days after the bodies were found. The D.C. Child and Family Services Agency recommended Bowman as a suitable adoptive parent even though she filed for bankruptcy protection in 2001, the year she adopted one foster child, and had just emerged from it in 2004, when she adopted two others. In between, she lost her Landover house to foreclosure.
Bowman, now jailed on child abuse charges, had also been convicted in 1999 of a misdemeanor charge of "threatening bodily harm" to a 72-year-old man.
"We want to know how did this person . . . qualify to become an adoptive parent?" said D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), chairman of the Committee on Human Services and a former social worker. "Is there anything we don't know or should have known that would have prevented the adoption?"
Acting Attorney General Peter Nickles said he was not aware of the bankruptcy filings or the misdemeanor conviction and does not believe that the information was included in a home visit report generated by a private contractor.
"That was not revealed. At least, I don't think it was revealed," he said. "I'm not saying . . . that I've seen everything."
Bowman is being held without bond on charges relating to her youngest daughter, a 7-year-old. The two other children, who would be 9 and 11, are officially missing. Autopsies to confirm the victims' identities were expected to be completed today.
Detectives used a cadaver-sniffing dog to search for evidence yesterday in the house near Rockville that was once occupied by Bowman and her three adopted children. Late in the afternoon, investigators armed with shovels dug up a portion of the yard where a lack of grass had drawn suspicion -- to no avail.
"The dirt is clean," Montgomery police Capt. Patty Walker said after the search was complete. "There's nothing to sift through."
The task of collecting evidence at the house, in the 13100 block of Vandalia Court, was made more difficult because Bowman moved from there a year ago and the residence was later renovated, authorities said.
The 7-year-old was found wandering on a Calvert street Friday, dressed in a soiled nightgown, her body covered in bruises. That led sheriff's deputies to search Bowman's home, where they found the two bodies encased in a block of ice in the freezer, they said.
Bowman had been receiving $2,400 a month -- $800 for each of her adopted daughters -- through a federal program that aids people who adopt children who had been in foster care.
Bowman's adoptions were approved by a D.C. Superior Court judge after a background investigation by a private agency under contract with the child services agency. Records of the adoptions remain confidential under D.C. law.
The case is prompting discussion among child-welfare advocates in the region about developing a standardized protocol to ensure thorough examinations of prospective adoptive parents and increasing post-adoption monitoring. Most states and the District have no post-adoption monitoring systems, experts said.
Debra Byrd, president of the DC Metropolitan Foster and Adoptive Parent Association, a support group, said financial stability is a must for parents seeking to adopt. "I would consider bankruptcy to be a reason to not go ahead with the adoption," she said.
As of last month, 2,295 people who adopted from the District were receiving the tax-free federal subsidy of $800 a month per child, said Mafara Hobson, spokeswoman for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D).
Meanwhile, some details of Bowman's background emerged.
A spokeswoman for Suburban Hospital in Bethesda said Bowman did secretarial work there from September 2004 to June 2006. She worked as a patient appointment scheduler at the Center for Ambulatory Surgery in the District from May 1989 to June 1993, then again from May 1998 to December 2000, according to a spokeswoman for the facility, which recently changed its name to MedStar Surgery Center.
In 1999, according to D.C. Superior Court records, Bowman, in a vehicle, pulled alongside the 72-year-old man's car and angrily demanded that he pay her for damages to her car caused during an earlier accident. The man, who was with a woman, quoted Bowman as yelling: "I want my $900. . . . If that [expletive] wasn't sitting next to you, I'd whup your [expletive] right now."
He said Bowman continued to follow him and threaten him that day, at one point saying she would "get the drug boys around the corner" to break into his house and beat him. Bowman received a 6-month suspended sentenced and was put on probation for a year.
It is unclear whether background investigators knew about or considered that case in evaluating Bowman as a prospective adoptive parent. Thomas Curcio, president of the nonprofit Board of Child Care, the private agency hired by the city to evaluate Bowman, has not responded to phone messages seeking a comment on the case.
When the 7-year-old spoke with Calvert authorities Friday, she said her mother had beaten her, but she spoke kindly about a man she considered to be her father. He is not her biological father, authorities said, but her mother's boyfriend.
The girl "thought the world of him," Detective Sgt. Moore said.
Officials identified him as Joe C. Dickerson and said he was cooperative during an interview. They would not say what he had told them when asked about the bodies in the freezer. They said he visited Bowman at her home frequently but did not live there.
Attempts to locate Dickerson for comment were unsuccessful.
The 7-year-old was placed in the custody of the Maryland Department of Human Resources after a court hearing that was closed to the public.
The girl remained in the hospital late yesterday afternoon, and she was scheduled to be placed with a Calvert foster family, officials said.
The Department of Human Resources said it had found no records of any child abuse or neglect complaints about this family.
Staff writers Aaron C. Davis, Daniel de Vise, Paul Duggan, Hamil R. Harris, Nikita Stewart and Ovetta Wiggins and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.