By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
In the beginning, their stories were heartbreakingly similar.
At birth, life handed the three little girls legacies of addiction and abandonment. Adoption was supposed to be their chance to escape.
Instead, Minnet, who would be 11, and Jasmine, who would be 9, were discovered last month at the bottom of a freezer in the Calvert County basement of Renee Bowman's rented home. Their 7-year-old sister was found wandering the streets, bloody and beaten.
They had been the adopted daughters of Bowman, 43, who now sits in jail in Calvert County, where she is being held on charges of neglect and abuse of the youngest girl. No charges have been filed in Minnet's and Jasmine's deaths, which remain under investigation.
The lives of three sisters drew national headlines. But their births in desperate circumstances unfolded in quiet anonymity.
Minnet's biological mother spent years on the streets of the District, a Cardozo High School dropout who first got pregnant at 17. In her 20s, she was diagnosed as schizophrenic. Mental illness chased her, and she chased drugs, selling her body to men she met along the way, relatives said. In all, she would have six children, three boys and three girls.
Minnet, born in 1997, was her youngest.
The biological mother of Jasmine and her 7-year-old sister would disappear for days, leaving her girls, then a 2-year-old and an infant, with their grandmother, who was legally blind and used a wheelchair. It was the grandmother who called District family services twice in two months. The second time she called, the city came and took the children away.
D.C. Superior Court gave The Washington Post access to the confidential neglect files of Minnet, Jasmine and the surviving sister on the condition that the identities of the biological families and the surviving girl not be published.
The court records describe the girls' lives through their foster care experiences. The records covering the time after the girls were adopted by Bowman remain sealed.
From the foster care records and interviews with biological family members, what is clear is that the three girls' earliest days were like the stories of too many children in a city still battling the legacy of the crack cocaine epidemic.Last of Six Children
When Minnet's mother delivered her baby girl in 1997, she already had five children.
According to court records, the father was listed on the birth certificate as unknown.
The mother would leave the hospital never having held her baby girl. And 10 days after giving birth, she told hospital social workers that she could not care for her daughter.
Records do show, however, that she did take the time to give her daughter a name. Family members said that she named the baby for a cousin who had been killed by her husband.
In August, then-Magistrate Judge Fern Flanagan-Saddler ordered the baby placed in foster care with Bowman, who would later call the girl Minnet. That same month the government filed a neglect petition against the mother.
On Nov. 21, 1997, Judge John Bayly Jr. signed an order ending the parental rights of Minnet's birth mother.
Minnet never got a chance to be known by her biological family, which still owns a red-brick home in Northwest Washington. She was the last of six children, three boys and three girls. The close-knit family had managed to raise three of those children and maintain a relationship with the oldest girl, who was also put up for adoption. But they could not hold on to the two youngest girls.
After the freezer story broke Sept. 29, an uncle of Minnet's saw her picture on television. He casually turned to his wife and three children as they ate a dinner of steak and fried cabbage in their Northwest Washington home and remarked how the girl slightly resembled his very troubled sister.
He soon learned that the similarity was no coincidence. The girl was his niece, who was given up in 1997 by his sister. She had six children in all and gave up four. Now 49, a recovering addict and mentally ill, the sister had spent years on the city's streets, he said.
He and his parents helped raise his sister's two oldest children, both boys, he said. As his sister's drug use worsened, she gave birth to four other children, one born every other year from 1989 to 1997. His mother, he said, tried to persuade his sister to be surgically sterilized.
"She had one pregnancy after another," said her brother. "I grew up with a mother and a father in our house, so family has always been important to us."
The family found the third son while he was in foster care and brought him home. They also located the oldest girl. She had been adopted by a District woman who lived not far from the family home. They have kept in touch with her -- she is now 17 and a high school senior with a part-time job. Her three brothers are grown and well, he said.
But the adoption laws made it difficult to locate the youngest two.
An aunt of Minnet's put it this way, "We tried to keep the family together, but it took a toll on all of us."
Three months ago, Minnet's uncle said, the family placed his sister in a mental health facility in the District.'No Concerns to Report'
The story of Jasmine and her surviving sister is also rooted in the story of a birth mother consumed by substance abuse.
On May 21, 2001, social workers removed Jasmine, then 2, and her infant sister from their 77-year-old grandmother's Northwest apartment. A social worker, noting that the grandmother was legally blind and used a wheelchair, wrote that she was an "unwilling and inappropriate caretaker."
The girls' mother was 26 when she was charged with neglect, records show. She had been admitted and then kicked out of several drug programs.
The girls spent two months at St. Ann's Infant & Maternity Home in Hyattsville before Bowman became their foster mother. A year later, an adoption petition was filed; the goal was to complete the adoption in January 2005.
The birth mother consented to the adoptions, and one biological father's rights were waived after social workers couldn't find him, records show. The second biological father was unknown.
For a while, it seemed that their mother had made a good decision.
In a Dec. 14, 2001, court report, D.C. social worker Susan Pascale wrote that the girls were "doing well in this foster home and there are no concerns to report."
Within seven months, Pascale wrote that the youngest girl was calling Bowman "momma." And Jasmine, she wrote, "presents as a charming, inquisitive and talkative child. She loves to smile and laugh and is very active."
In a memo dated Jan. 25, 2002, the girls' court-appointed attorney, Sharon Taylor-Smith, told Judge Judith E. Retchin that teachers at the girls' day care reported that they were "doing very well." Taylor-Smith declined to comment on the case.
During a Jan. 12, 2004, visit, Bowman and Pascale discussed kindergarten programs that Jasmine might enter in the fall. Her 3-year-old sister, Pascale wrote, also showed "tremendous progress," especially with language development, since being enrolled in a District-based school for developmentally disabled children.
In a Jan. 30, 2004, report, Pascale wrote that Jasmine, then 4, appeared to be "very happy in her placement."
None of Pascale's court reports mentioned Minnet, the first child Bowman adopted. Pascale has not returned calls from The Post.
None of the reports noted that Bowman, who was paid $2,400 a month from a federal program that encourages adoption, had filed for bankruptcy in 2001, the year she adopted Minnet. None mentioned that in 1999, Bowman was convicted of a misdemeanor after "threatening bodily harm" to a 72-year-old man in the District.
On July 15, 2004, Judge Nan R. Shuker signed the adoption final decree for the two girls.A Family Comes Apart
Like Minnet's biological family, birth relatives of Jasmine and her 7-year-old sister were unaware that it was their nieces who were in the national news after Bowman was arrested last month.
The girls' uncle now lives in an Ohio town on the outskirts of Cleveland.
He and his wife had had an opportunity to adopt the two girls in 2002, he said, but they had three young children to care for and adding two more would have been a strain. He has a son in college now, and two children still at home.
He is 13 years older than his sister, and their lives turned out very differently, he said.
Before his sister was born, their mother went to prison for five years on drug charges, and he lived with an aunt in the District. When he was 11, his mother was released from prison, and the two moved to Cleveland. The mother traveled there to marry a man she had met via a penitentiary newsletter. He was in prison in Ohio on drug charges. After marrying, they had Jasmine's mother.
The couple went to live in the District and took Jasmine's mother with them. Jasmine's uncle stayed in Ohio and lived with the family of a friend. Today, he is a warehouse technician there.
In the District, his mother and stepfather started using drugs, Jasmine's uncle said.
Speaking of his sister, he said: "She's had a very difficult life, and she still does."
She has no fixed address and only calls her brother occasionally.
"She's still out there," he said.'That's My Blood'
Two families, separated by hundreds of miles, now share the same emotional terrain of loss and regret.
"I have a niece that has nobody but me. What do I do? Come get her?" asked the uncle in Ohio, as he thinks about the 7-year-old girl now living with a foster family. He thinks, too, about the decision he made in 2002.
"This child doesn't know me. I don't know this child. But that's my blood. Her sister is dead now because of this system."
Minnet's uncle in the District agonizes, too. Does he tell his institutionalized sister about Minnet and maybe risk a relapse?
"I don't know what to do. I can't tell her. I just can't," he said.
He wonders where his other niece is, Minnet's sister, who would be about 14.
"I'm just thinking about [her]," he said. "I don't want the same thing to happen again."
Staff reporter Petula Dvorak and staff researchers Magda Jean-Louis and Meg Smith contributed to this report.