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‘A house of torture’: Lebanon County couple charged after prolonged assault, abuse of five adopted children


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    Annville Township, Pennsylvania (WPMT) — A Lebanon County couple is facing charges for prolonged assault and abuse of their five adopted children, according to the Lebanon County District Attorney’s office.

Stephanie Duncan, 43, and Robert Duncan, 44, are facing multiple counts of aggravated assault, simple assault, endangering the welfare of a child, and tampering or fabricating evidence while conspiring with one another to commit the crimes.

According to the criminal complaint, the couple’s adopted 11-year-old son had to be rushed to Hershey Medical Care on Jan. 13, requiring immediate medical care after being unresponsive and hypothermic.

“Frankly, jail is a far better existence than what that 11-year-old boy dealt with,” said Pier Hess Graf. “Frankly, if he had not gotten emergency medical care by the Hershey Medical Center team, he would have died. That little boy almost died twice while in their care. They could tell us he was hypothermic. He had prolonged exposure to the extreme cold. They could tell us he was severely dehydrated. There was bruising all over the little boy’s body.”

An examination of the victim’s body revealed bruises on his neck, shoulders, back, abdomen, hip, and genitals.

Through the course of his care, medical staff determined that the victim’s injuries were not accidental and only to prolonged exposure to the extreme cold could cause the significant hypothermia he suffered from.

When medical staff spoke to Stephanie Duncan, she told them the victim had gone to bed with a headache the night before, but had no explanation for his weakened state or the issues found within his blood, including an abnormally low pressure and low potassium levels.

Lebanon County Detective Bureau began an investigation and responded to the Duncan residence in the 2700 block of Cedar Run Road in Lebanon on the evening of Jan. 13.

Detectives learned that the Duncan’s had adopted five children, ranging in age from 6 to 15-years-old, including the hospitalized victim, and they all resided in that home.

According to the criminal complaint, the three oldest children had separate bedrooms in the family’s basement, including the victim in the hospital.

The 11-year-old child’s room contained a bare, concrete floor and a mattress with bedding. Detectives say that a space heater ran in the middle of the room and directly faced the mattress. They also noted the room had a strong odor of bleach.

A video camera was seen in the middle of the victim’s room, and Stephanie Duncan told law enforcement that the cameras were used to livestream the child in the daytime hours. Further investigation found that the couple had video cameras installed in all of their children’s bedrooms to monitor their behaviors. If they slept inappropriately, court documents show the children would be punished.

When detectives asked her why her child was hospitalized that morning, Stephanie Duncan had no explanation.

According to the criminal complaint, Stephanie Duncan told investigators she had found the victim unresponsive in the bedroom on Jan. 13.

The victim was unable to walk or speak, and Stephanie Duncan allegedly smacked him, grabbed him by the neck, and drug him upstairs to the bathroom.

The victim was forced into the shower where he was unable to stand.

Stephanie Duncan forced the victim, but he vomited anything he consumed, and a thermometer reading produced a temperature of ‘low.’

The criminal complaint states that it took Duncan hours to seek medical attention for the victim after his condition did not improve.

On Jan. 15, Lebanon County’s Children and Youth Agency initiated an emergency petition to take custody of the Duncan’s children, and after obtaining a court order, they removed the children from the home that day.

The affidavit states that over a period of 10 days, forensic interviews from the Children’s Resource Center interviewed all of the children, including the hospitalized victim.

Investigators say that the victims described a caste system within the family, with the Duncan’s inflicted the most abuse upon the hospitalized victim. After that, the next targets were typically the two other oldest victims, who are among the only three victims that were forced to sleep in the basement.

The victims told investigators that each of the youngest children have received the least amount of abuse, but each of the children had been physically struck by their adoptive parents.

According to the criminal complaint, each child provided statements during their interviews that depicted graphic punishments, including watching the Duncan’s physically attack one of the siblings in front of another.

Prior to the 11-year-old’s victim hospitalization, he was kept lock in his bedroom and went for days without water.

The affidavit states that the victim was caught “stealing” water from the sink, and Robert Duncan choked the victim to the point where he fell over and gasped for airs multiple times.

After further investigation, detectives said that the bedroom they had found for the victim with the bedding and space heater had been staged by the Duncan’s, and he slept nighty on a concrete floor in a diaper after he was denied clothes.

According to the criminal complaint, the victim was rarely allowed to exit his room to use the bathroom, so he was forced to use to relieve himself in the bedroom, and Stephanie Duncan allegedly made the victim use bleach to clean it.

Court documents show the victim was allegedly forced to run in place, and if he complained about the bleach, it was dumped on his head.

The children told investigators that the room was kept locked with a hook and eye lock to prevent anyone from freeing the victim. That, too, was removed before investigators arrived.

The criminal complaint states that every evening, the Duncan’s forced children to remove all the light bulbs from the oldest three victims’ bedrooms, leaving them in complete darkness.

A forensic review of Stephanie Duncan’s cell phone showed pictures of the hospitalized victim at nighttime, depicting the victim laying facedown on the concrete floor in only a diaper. That photo was dated only a week before his hospitalization.

According to Dr. Kathryn Crowell of the HMC Child Protection Team, the victim’s physical condition constituted serious bodily injury as defined by law.

Lebanon County District Attorney Pier Hess Graf released a statement via a press release:

“As parents, the defendants (the Duncan’s) had the duty to protect, care for, and unconditionally love their children. They violated every aspect of their duties and instead created a household of unspeakable fear, violence, torment, and abuse… All of our victims suffered at their hands for years with no hope or end in sight. Unable to escape or rescue one another, they each at young ages resigned themselves to merely survive.”

Graf added, “I want to commend the excellent efforts of the Hershey Medical Center, without them, this little boy would not be alive.”

“When we talked to the children about what daily life was like for the 11-year-old boy, it was absolutely horrific,” added DA Pier Hess Graf.

“You’d hear them screaming and hollering,” said neighbor Jerry Getz.

Getz says he called child protective services multiple times on his neighbors over the years. He questions how so many children could be allowed to live inside such a small house. He recalls the things he felt were unusual.

“When she’d put them out in the hot sun without water, and that was punishment for the little boy [going to the bathroom] in his pants,” explained Getz. “She’d make him run up and down them stairs out back, and she’d yell at them, ‘keep going, you know, exercise is good for ya.'”

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