This post has been updated.
Police say that when the camera wasn’t rolling, however, the seven adopted children were being starved and sequestered for days in a closet with a bare tile floor. Its color evoked a green room, almost like a staging area for their performances. They were being pepper-sprayed and beaten with belts, brushes and hangers. They were forced to take ice baths. They were required to stand with their arms raised above their heads from dawn until midnight. On more than one occasion, at least one of the boys bled when the tip of his penis was pinched.
The perpetrator of this catalogue of abuse, according to a statement of probable cause prepared last week, was their adoptive mother, Machelle Hackney, 48, who goes by her maiden name, Hobson, and runs the “Fantastic Adventures” channel, which has had more than 250 million views. The channel started in 2012 and features 10- to 15-minute videos of the children engaging in various make-believe scenarios, involving everything from zombies to spiders to s’mores. Several new videos appear each month. At the end of the segments, the children face the camera and ask viewers to like the videos and subscribe.
Hackney was arrested Friday at her home in Maricopa, Ariz., along with her two biological sons. She was charged with molestation of a child, child abuse, unlawful imprisonment and child neglect. Her adult sons, Logan and Ryan Hackney, face charges of not reporting abuse. Machelle Hackney’s biological daughter was the one who contacted authorities on March 13, prompting a welfare check at the home 30 miles outside of Phoenix, according to court records.
YouTube didn’t terminate “Fantastic Adventures” until Wednesday, though the company said it had demonetized the channel when it became aware of Hackney’s arrest. Ricardo Alvarado, a Maricopa police spokesman, said local authorities had faxed the necessary paperwork to YouTube on Monday, adding that he found it curious that it had taken two days for the account to come down.
The video-sharing website, which is owned by Google, declined to specify how much money Hackney made on the platform.
A popular YouTube presence can be highly lucrative, with a channel netting almost $10 per 1,000 views, according to the business solutions company G2 Crowd. That suggests that Hackney could have grossed as much as $2.5 million from her exploits on the site.
“We work closely with leading child safety organizations and others in our industry to protect young people. When we’re made aware of serious allegations of this nature, we investigate and take action,” a company spokesperson said in a statement to The Washington Post. “We immediately suspended monetization when notified of the arrest. In cases where there are Community Guidelines violations, we may take additional actions, including terminating the channel.”
Hackney’s arrest adds to questions about how the world’s biggest video site polices its platform in a moment of intense scrutiny about the spread of misleading and hateful content. Last week, technology companies became unwitting accessories in the quest for publicity undertaken by the man accused of opening fire on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 50 people. YouTube struggled to keep up with users uploading new versions of the gruesome footage, which also spread on Facebook, Twitter and Reddit.
YouTube debuted in 2005 as a do-it-yourself platform with the slogan “Broadcast Yourself.” Recently, the video-sharing behemoth has had to answer for its role in disseminating poisonous online conspiracy theories, terrorist recruitment videos and other content deemed harmful to children, such as suicide instructions interspersed with footage from a popular Nintendo game.
The company has aimed to crack down in particular on pedophilic content, erasing tens of millions of comments from its site that a video blogger said amounted to a “soft-core pedophile ring" driving traffic — and revenue — to the platform. Sometimes, it has misfired. YouTube corrected itself last month after mistakenly deleting the accounts of several high-profile users who said they had been unfairly caught in the dragnet.
But the prospect that a commercial endeavor on YouTube could be facilitating child abuse off-screen appears to present a relatively new challenge for the company.
In responding to a query about Hackney’s channel, YouTube emphasized its feature allowing users to flag inappropriate content but didn’t explain how its drop-down option for reporting offensive material would have applied in this case, when no abuse was featured on-screen.
For accusations of abuse happening offline, the company suggests that users notify the police. A spokesperson didn’t return a query about whether the company saw fit to screen popular content creators who have vast platforms on its service.
According to authorities in Arizona, Hackney’s YouTube channel was the reason for her alleged mistreatment of her adopted children. She meted out punishment, they said, when the young actors didn’t remember their lines or otherwise didn’t perform as directed.
Alvarado, the police spokesman, said the seven adopted children range in age from about 6 to 15. After the welfare check Wednesday, they were removed from their mother’s custody by the state’s Department of Child Safety.
Hackney denied using pepper spray and ice baths to punish the children, according to the statement of probable cause. (Two cans of pepper spray were discovered in her bedroom.) She told police that she instead resorted to spanking and grounding them, as well as forcing them to stand in a corner.
But the court filing paints a macabre picture of all-encompassing abuse, which flourished beneath the veil of “Fantastic Adventures.”
The children reported being removed from school several years ago to focus on the videos. When police interviewed them, they appeared malnourished, underweight, and had pale complexions and dark rings under their eyes. One of the children, when offered the chance to drink, guzzled three 16-ounce bottles of water in 20 minutes. Another child, provided a bag of chips, was reluctant to eat, fearful that her mother would smell the food on her breath. A third said she had not been allowed to eat in two days.
In interviews with child safety officials, the children described being pepper-sprayed all over their faces and bodies, including their genitals, causing pain for four to five days. When they resisted ice baths, they said, their mother would force their heads underwater. They were frequently locked in the closet off their mother’s master bedroom, sometimes for as long as a week.
Hackney and her two biological sons were arrested at their home shortly before noon on Friday. Ryan Hackney invoked his Miranda rights, declining to speak with police. Logan Hackney admitted knowledge of the abuse, according to the filing, and said he and his brother had discussed reporting their mother. The adopted children said Ryan would sometimes sneak them food when they were locked in the closet.
The videos in which the children appear have diverse themes, but a number revolve around “escape game” situations, where players have to solve puzzles to free themselves. They vanquish aliens and gingerbread men to find their way out. According to police, their real-life captor proved more difficult to elude.
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