The crimes Machelle Hobson was accused of shocked the country two years ago. Now ABC15 has learned the seven children were left in Hobson’s care for years after they, and others, alerted the Arizona Department of Child Safety and the City of Maricopa Police Department to the horrors happening behind closed doors.
Hobson became known as “YouTube Mom” after her 2019 arrest, which garnered national attention. New records reveal she fostered 14 kids over roughly a decade. Hobson formally adopted seven of them, before she was finally arrested and charged with child abuse, molestation of a child, unlawful imprisonment, and child neglect -- 29 counts total.
“We, as a prosecutorial office, were confident that we were going to hold her absolutely accountable and she was going to spend every day the rest of her life behind bars,” said Pinal County Attorney Kent Volkmer.
Hobson was never convicted of the crimes though. She died less than eight months after being arrested and the case never went to trial.
ABC15 has spent two years working to obtain all of the available records related to this case.
AZDCS has declined to provide any records, citing state law and “confidentiality,” but the City of Maricopa police investigation reveals that the harm was worse than initially reported and the state was notified at least 10 times of Hobson’s abuse and neglect in the eight years leading up to her arrest. Each time they took a report, they found the abuse allegations “unsubstantiated” and left the children in the home.
"SHE'S SUCH AN EVIL MOM"
When the seven adopted children were finally removed from Hobson’s in 2019, investigators wrote they were malnourished, as well as covered in bruises, scars, and burn marks.
In addition to the physical injuries, child specialists told officers the kids were psychologically traumatized from the years of abuse.
“When trauma happens to a child, it is severe and long lasting,” said Phoenix attorney Robert Pastor, who specializes in abuse cases.
The seven children told officers, Hobson would lock them in a tile room, refuse to give them food or water for days, refuse to let them use a bathroom, hold their heads underwater in freezing ice baths, pinch their genitals, force them to stand in the corner with their arms above their heads for hours, burn them with a lighter, and pepper spray them “from head to toe.”
“She’s such an evil mom,” said one adopted daughter. “She locked me in that room and I wouldn’t stop crying, so she took the pepper spray and covered me in it...and she dumped paprika in my mouth...I am locked in there every single night.”
“She doesn’t let us out when we sleep in there. The next morning we ask her and she says no,” said one little boy, in a forensic interview.
The room where the children told police they were “locked inside” daily for punishment and sleeping was called “the green room.” It was a closet by Hobson’s bedroom and was painted green to use as a chroma key for video special effects.
“Three,” the girl replied. “Three other kids sleep there in pull-ups...and she has a lock on it so we can’t get out to pee,” said
If she was in a bad mood, Hobson would reportedly remove lightbulbs, and the kids would be locked in the dark, starving, in dirty diapers for days.
"I WISH I COULD BE IN SCHOOL"
The children were pulled from school years before they were rescued, and forced to perform in YouTube videos.
“If we are bad in [the videos] or something we have to go into the green screen room and be locked up,” one girl told detectives. “I wish I could be in school.”
“School is a privilege in that home. All seven of those kids, they haven’t been to school in years,” one adult biological daughter of Hobson’s told police.
The children said while much of the abuse was “punishment,” their daily lives were marked with pain.
The kids told police they were responsible for cooking Hobson’s food, cleaning the entire house, and taking care of any children younger than them.
Detectives found a camera system set-up inside the home. The children said Hobson constantly monitored them from her phone.
“She literally sits on a chair all day and smokes,” said one girl.
“I WANT ALL MY BROTHERS AND SISTERS TO BE IN A SAFE HOME”
The children were finally saved thanks to a trip to the dentist and a cell phone video.
Hobson had one of her older, biological daughters take one of the adopted girls to the dentist.
The dentist told the adult daughter that her adopted sister’s teeth were rotting, which prompted a longer conversation on the car ride home and ultimately, the older sister recording a video of the girl outlining the abuse behind locked doors.
The entire goal was to have clear evidence, without Hobson present, that the girls could take directly to the police.
“We thought we would come straight to you guys because [DCS] doesn’t do anything,” the older daughter would later tell officers.
At the time, Maricopa police pulled them from the home in March 2019, the seven adopted kids were all between the ages of two and 13-years old. A nurse told detectives many of the kids were malnourished and in the "fifth percentile for their development."
One boy told investigators the day before they were rescued, he had to stand in a corner with his arms in the air from “six in the morning until twelve at night.”
“This is as bad of a case, without any fatality, as I can remember ever reviewing,” said Pinal County Attorney Kent Volkmer.
The county’s top prosecutor said reviewing the case “was akin to torture.”
“I mean, there was violence perpetrated on the genitals of small children,” said Volkmer. “They were deprived of sensory opportunities, they were locked in a room, they were deprived of food, and it was all done if they didn't perform these little skits and these little videos.”
Those "little videos" were viewed hundreds of millions of times on Hobson’s lucrative YouTube channel, Fantastic Adventures.
The channel had 800,000 subscribers and more than 275 million views. Detectives wrote that the family was approached by Disney and Nerf about possible sponsorship and contracts. (Note: The channel was immediately demonetized by YouTube after Hobson’s arrest and her financial accounts frozen).
“She was making, I think the last few months, hundreds of thousands of dollars a month,” said Volkmer.
Another one of Hobson’s older biological daughters told officers the kids were pulled from school so they could film more. She said her mother treated the adopted children “like they’re her slaves” and overheard her tell them, “you work for me.”
Crime scene photos obtained by ABC15 show that while most of the house was filthy and cluttered, two rooms were immaculate for filming.
One of Hobson’s older biological sons, Logan, who lived at the home, said they “treated YouTube like a job,” with editing days and filming days. Logan told police his mother would keep “the finances secret,” but that he got paid $5,000 a month for editing and filming.
Logan and his younger brother Ryan lived with Hobson and the children.
The two were initially arrested for failing to report the abuse. Those charges were later dropped and no new charges have been filed.
“We brought criminal charges, believing that they violated their legal duty [to report]. But as we actually looked at the paperwork...it became apparent that they actually did not fit under the definition of a legal mandatory reporter,” said Volkmer.
When the story first broke in 2019, many neighbors and viewers were shocked at the horrific allegations of abuse, but also relieved that the kids were removed from the home by AZDCS and City of Maricopa police.
No one knew at the time that Maricopa police and the Arizona Department of Child safety had been told, in detail, about the abuse two years earlier, but failed to remove the children from Hobson’s home.
“These children experienced a tragedy that they should never have had to endure,” said Volkmer. “I would say it was a collective failure of the system.”
AZDCS did not provide any records for this story, but the 87-page Maricopa police report outlines the prior reports the state agency took regarding Hobson.
Documents show that AZDCS was told 11 times, between 2011 and 2019, about alleged abuse, neglect, and maltreatment involving Hobson and her children.
Teachers, daycare workers, older siblings, and even the kids themselves told case workers and the hotline, that the children were not safe. Every single time the agency found the details “unsubstantiated.”
It is unclear what investigations or evidence led to all of the “unsubstantiated” findings, but Maricopa police did summarize the reports that AZDCS took and reportedly investigated.
In April 2011, a babysitter told DCS the kids "yell and cry" after Hobson "will lock them in a bedroom,” “from the outside.”
The reporting party also said Hobson will not watch, or cook for, the children herself.
AZDCS found the details "unsubstantiated.”
Two years later in May 2013, one of the children, adopted at the time, told her teacher that Hobson “makes her stand in the corner when she gets home from school until she has to beg [for food].”
The findings? “Unsubstantiated."
A week later in May 2013, there was another report from the school.
A teacher told DCS that “over the past 3 years [Hobson’s child] has displayed evidence of general neglect.
The teacher said the girl was “legally blind” and had “mild intellectual deficits.”
The educator told the hotline that the girl’s shoes were falling apart and that she had “gunk...on her teeth up to her gum lines.”
When asked about brushing her teeth, the teachers said the girl “hung her head and said [Hobson] took her toothbrush away.”
The teacher told the agency that Hobson was "rarely involved” and they had "a fear of harm and retaliation" due to the report.
That fear was realized three days later when “after a CPS visit to the home... [Hobson] contacted the school and withdrew [the girl]."
Records reveal Hobson gloated to the teacher and said, "the case worker laughed at the allegation and did not take it seriously."
The findings? “Unsubstantiated.”
Editor's Note: Child Protective Services (CPS) was dissolved and absorbed into the Arizona Department of Child Safety (AZDCS) in May 2014.
A year later in August 2014, daycare staff in Gilbert told AZDCS that Hobson’s foster kids are “unbathed,” “covered in feces,” and have “infected blisters and rashes all over."
Despite the details, the findings were once again “unsubstantiated.”
In April 2015, a foster child said that two years earlier, Hobson "threw a can of food at her head and it left a scar.”
The findings came back “unsubstantiated.”
In July 2015, AZDCS was told one of Hobson’s girls had a black eye and “bruising up from her elbow to her forehead.”
Another child had a bruise on her forehead, left arm, scrape on her chin, cut on her head, and an extensive diaper rash. In the same report, DCS was told another child “was so hungry she had 13 ozs of formula and was hoarding food, trying to shove them in her pockets.”
Like all the other reports, we do not know how this was investigated by AZDCS, but the findings were again “unsubstantiated.”
The incident with the most detail and desperation happened in December 2017.
Maricopa police have since purged the body camera footage, but their report reveals one of Hobson’s adopted boys ran from their Maricopa home naked to allegedly avoid another beating.
Hobson took a risk and called 911. It was categorized as a “juvenile problem.”
The boy was found shivering in a nearby backyard. Officers wrote that the boy begged them not to take him home and said, “I’m being starved and pepper sprayed.” He also said he never had clean clothes and was pepper sprayed in the face and genitals.
Officer Michael Takagi documented the kids' disclosures. He wrote, "[Hobson] keeps them out of school so officials don’t see bruises or hits them in areas that are not visible."
Officer Takagi and others took the boy to a children’s hospital in Mesa, where Hobson later met them and took the boy home.
The officer called AZDCS after the disclosure. An employee with the agency told Officer Takagi that DCS “would take the information as an informational report only.”
AZDCS did make a report two days after the child was found in the backyard. They wrote that Hobson reportedly “locks [kids] in the closet upstairs in her room…[for] 90% of the day.”
They wrote that kids disclosed “there is a reverse lock on the door so they are unable to get out” and that she feeds them “every 2 or 3 days” and “takes away their water privileges” and hits them in the head and “pulled them out of school.”
They concluded their report by stating that Hobson “is reported to know CPS and will brief the children and tell them she will hurt them if they say anything.”
A DCS worker physically went to the house six days later to interview the children. It is unclear if she interviewed them independently of Hobson, and how long those interviews lasted. We do not have any details, because DCS did not provide any records and Officer Takagi stood outside the home during the interviews. He was later reprimanded for not participating and doing a tangential investigation.
At the end of the day, AZDCS found the abuse disclosed by the children and documented by police was “unsubstantiated.”
“A COLLECTIVE FAILURE OF THE SYSTEM”
Her older biological daughter told police in 2019 though, that CPS/DCS “does not do anything.”
“We’ve had like multiple reports where they come and do investigations,” said the daughter. “And every time it happens they give her a heads up. They tell her what’s happening because she’s a part of the foster care system.”
Another biological daughter said after she made a report, AZDCS “immediately reported it to [Hobson], and nothing happened.”
“They interviewed the kids right in front of her,” the daughter added. “This is a woman who hurts them.”
After the 2017 incident was investigated, and did not lead to the removal of the children, the kids said Hobson retaliated.
One girl told officers in 2019, “After [police] left, she made me stand for hours with my hands up.”
Another child said, “Mom got mad and she put us in that room for a really long time...So we got scared to tell again cause that was after the cops came once.”
ABC15 broke the news of Hobson’s death, due to health issues, on November 12, 2019. The 29 counts were eventually dismissed as a result of her passing.
Although she is no longer alive or a certified foster parent, DCS has still declined to share any records citing state law and “confidentiality.”
“They want to keep this information under wraps,” said Pastor. “They don’t want people to know that they are failing to pick up on some of these red flags of abuse.”
Volkmer said he had mixed feelings when he learned Hobson passed away.
“When she died, there was a small measure of relief, because I knew I wasn't going to have to put these kids on the stand, they weren't going to have to disclose the most intimate and horrific things that ever happened to them,” said the Pinal County Attorney.
But Volkmer said he also wanted to “hold her accountable.”
“I wanted 12 jurors to look at her and say, ‘You did this, you did this.’ And then I wanted a judge to say, ‘And you're going to spend every waking moment of the rest of your life behind bars for what you did to those kids.’”
“WHEN WE MAKE MISTAKES, THE STAKES ARE HIGH”
When Hobson was arrested in 2019 and the abuse was more thoroughly investigated, Maricopa police looked back on the 2017 report through a different lens.
“In hindsight, there were some mistakes,” said Maricopa Police Chief Jim Hughes, who was a commander at the time.
An internal affairs investigation was initiated in late 2019 to determine how the department failed to investigate the 2017 abuse and potentially arrest Hobson sooner. Multiple mistakes were cited.
Internal affairs investigators stated that Officer Takagi never re-categorized the “juvenile problem” call to criminal abuse, so detectives were never flagged to investigate.
Lieutenant Mary Turner was also cited for failing to review his report and catch the re-categorization mistake.
Both were suspended without pay for 10 hours -- a single shift -- in late 2019.
A supervisor wrote that “the children were subject to more abuse" because of the failures.
“Does [10 hours] seem like appropriate punishment to you, given how many more months the kid suffered?” I asked.
“Unfortunately, when we make mistakes, the stakes are high,” said Chief Hughes. “You know, when we can't make that hurt go away, we have to own that and move on.”
Chief Hughes said the department has made changes as a result of this case.
He said all allegations of child abuse are now immediately “forwarded to the Criminal Investigations Division.”
Hughes also told ABC15 the department has hired more victim advocates and school resource officers, as well as “increased training in the area of mental health, autism and other types of disabilities for children.”
The one thing Hughes said still needs improving is the “overall relationship with DCS.” He indicated there is still a disconnect when it comes to handling cases.
“Can you, as law enforcement, trust that when you report something to DCS they're going to do their job, given what we have here?” I asked.
“And that's a fair question,” replied Chief Hughes. “I think in the way I've instructed my staff is, if there is an allegation or potential evidence that a crime occurred, it's our job to investigate...utilizing DCS as a partner. They are not the sworn police officers.”
Robert Pastor agrees.
“Law enforcement are trained investigators,” said Pastor. “It’s their responsibility to do a thorough investigation and understand that the social workers...don’t have the skillset, the mindset, or the training to conduct a criminal investigation.”
“SHE’S VERY GOOD AT DECEIVING PEOPLE”
After they were taken out of the home, the children told police Hobson often forced them to lie to DCS investigators and was constantly putting on a facade during visits.
“The last time CPS and cops came I wanted to tell him the truth, but my mom told me...if I didn’t say lies...she was going to kill me,” one adopted daughter said on video.
Even after police took the children away, the kids revealed Hobson threatened them in the days before her actual arrest.
“She’s threatened that if we don’t come back home she’s gonna come find us...and take us to California… and said she was going to stab me in the neck,” one girl told investigators.
“Our mom gets mad when we tell the truth but we said we can tell the truth cause she’s not near us, she can’t get us,” said one boy after being rescued.
Many of the children reportedly had behavioral, developmental, or mental health issues, which officials say allowed Hobson to excuse away their disclosures.
“Miss Hobson, specifically chose children that had significant mental health issues, knowing full well that those with...behavioral issues...are going to be less believable,” said Volkmer. “So she targeted this population, she exploited this population for her benefit. That's what makes this case so egregious.”
Volkmer said he believes this case is “extraordinary” and not “commonplace.”
“There were signs there in hindsight, but at the time, there were reasonable, I guess, explanations that were provided to a number of these agencies,” said Volkmer. “I think if Maricopa PD and DCS would have been sitting at the same time and were comparing notes, I think [the case] would have gotten together much sooner.”
“THEY CUT CORNERS, OR THEY MADE JUDGMENT CALLS, AND AS A RESULT, THESE CHILDREN GOT HARMED”
Even with the alleged lies and disabilities with the children, Robert Pastor says DCS should have been able to get to the truth.
“The idea that, ‘Oh children lied, and therefore we couldn’t have known.’ That’s contrary to everything that they are trained to do, which is to look at the totality of the circumstances,” said Pastor. “There were multiple reports and indicators of child abuse occurring...and you begin to put it together. And you say, ‘Hey there’s something going on here. We need to look more closely.’”
Pastor, Chief Hughes, and Volkmer agree, the closer look never happened in this case.
“And as a result, we had a number of young children that suffered potentially irreparable harm,” said Volkmer.
The harm will likely last a lifetime.
“This was supposed to be their mom,” said Volkmer. “The court said this is a person that you can trust, and they were violated so horribly.”
The Arizona Department of Child Safety did not respond to ABC15’s questions about what, if anything, has changed as a result of this case. Experts, though, say changes are needed.
Volkmer and Pastor both point to staffing and funding.
“Because there weren't adequate resources, they cut corners, or they made judgment calls. And as a result, these children got harmed,” said Volkmer.
“While their goal is to protect children, [DCS] seems to fail in that effort too frequently,” said Pastor. “They shirked their responsibility and sadly these kids had to live in this torturous environment for far too long.”
Chief Hughes pointed to the number of reports the agency takes each day.
“We probably report to DCS, I would say, at least five times a day. Then you magnify that across the state,” said Hughes.
Ultimately, the funding comes from the legislature.
“The Arizona legislature, year in and year out, has not given these caseworkers the resources, the training, the payment and salary they need to make sure children are safe,” said Pastor. “So this is just an example, another one, of a systemic problem that seems to go unchecked, unresolved, and continues to be broken.”
“There are places where we must invest in, and child safety and child protective care...is where those resources need to be invested,” said Volkmer. “If there was more money in the system, we could provide more actual eyes in the home...So hopefully, it never gets to this point.”
“WE DESERVE TO KNOW…”
AZDCS Director Mike Faust and his team repeatedly denied ABC15’s interview requests for this story.
We also sent the department detailed questions and asked that they not send us a statement. They sent a statement.
It reads in part, “We take great measures to ensure children are in the safest environments possible. We thoroughly investigate every report of abuse and neglect we receive, whether it is against a biological parent or a foster parent.”
Robert Pastor says, since that safety did not happen here, the agency needs to be more transparent.
“We deserve to know why so many children in the DCS system are being hurt,” said Pastor.
AZDCS would also not answer if any internal investigations were done following the 2019 arrests. They would also not say if any employees were held accountable or if any policies have been changed to address the issues that were exposed by the Hobson case.
“I’m not hopeful there’s going to be accountability,” said Pastor. “You can’t have accountability unless you have transparency. And DCS is an organization that we know one thing – they do not like this type of information finding its way into the public domain.”
Today, the seven adopted kids, and seven others Hobson at one point fostered, are in new homes -- but a larger question remains.
“Will we ever know how DCS handled this internally?” I asked.
“I hope so. I sincerely hope so. Because it’s not just these kids, it’s all the other kids that are still in DCS care,” replied Pastor.
HOW TO HELP
Arizona has thousands of foster children in need of living homes. Click here to learn more about how to become a foster parent.
If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected you can call the toll free Arizona Child Abuse Hotline at 1-888-SOS-CHILD (1-888-767-2445). If the child is in imminent danger, call 911.
The Department’s top priority is the safety of children, especially the children in our care. We take great measures to ensure children are in the safest environments possible.
We thoroughly investigate every report of abuse and neglect we receive, whether it is against a biological parent or a foster parent. In every investigation, we must determine whether an allegation has enough evidence to support it.
If there is not enough evidence to support an allegation, it is unsubstantiated. If there is evidence that the child is unsafe in their current home, we remove the child to a safe environment.
If we discover potential criminal activity during our investigation, we report it to law enforcement so they can investigate as well. While we cannot comment on the specifics of this case due to confidentiality laws, we can comment on how DCS licenses its foster placements in general. From the beginning, potential foster placements undergo a thorough vetting process prior to acquiring a license. Here is the Arizona Administrative Code chapter on foster licensing.
They are subjected to full background checks, a central registry check for prior DCS history of substantiated reports of abuse or neglect, a fingerprint clearance card issued from the Arizona Department of Public Safety, home inspections, reference checks, and licensing classes through a provider agency.
After they obtain their license, the court must grant its approval before a child can be placed in the foster placement’s home. Once a foster placement is caring for a child, they receive quarterly home visits from their licensing agencies and monthly visits from their assigned DCS case specialist.
Throughout the case, foster parents are continually scrutinized by the biological parents’ attorneys, the children’s attorneys, the Guardian Ad Litem, Court Appointed Special Advocates (in select cases), the Foster Care Review Board, and the Court.
If parental rights are severed, the foster placement may begin the adoption process.
Once an adoption is approved by the court, DCS is no longer involved with the family.
Despite all of these safeguards, people are sometimes able to avoid detection, especially if a person has no prior criminal or child abuse history.
We would like to point out that while a small fraction of people with bad intentions do manage to make it past the rigorous licensing and court process, the vast majority of Arizona foster parents are generous, dedicated people and we are grateful they open up their homes to Arizona’s most vulnerable children.
If you have a story about DCS, or were a former employee, contact Zach at firstname.lastname@example.org