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Neighbors say they reported Lebanon County couple before they were charged with abusing 5 adopted children

FOX43 spoke with next door neighbor Jerry Getz who says he called Children and Youth Services years before the Duncans were formally charged with child abuse.

LEBANON COUNTY, Pa. — Editor's note: The above video is from Feb. 4.

Jerry Getz says he's glad his neighbors, Stephanie and Robert Duncan, have been charged with child abuse.

"After they started getting all them kids, you'd hear them screaming and hollering," said Getz.

The Lebanon County couple is charged with abusing their five adopted children at the family's home on Cedar Run Road. 

"Especially when she'd put them out in the hot sun without water and that was punishment for the little boy, because he s*** his pants," said Getz. "In the winter time, right now, she'd [Stephanie Duncan] put him out on the porch, and he'd be out there on the porch screaming for an hour before she let him back in."

While Getz is happy the kids are no longer in the Duncan's care, he feels unsettled. 

He claims his wife reported abuse to Lebanon County Children and Youth Services. The couple wondered how five children and two adults could be living in a house listed as only having 912 square feet.

"Because of the size of the house, I thought you'd have to have so much square feet per person. I blame the welfare people, as much as them," said Getz.

"Did you ever call and complain about them?" asked FOX43's Grace Griffaton.

"Yes, I did. My wife called, and the neighbor up the street did. The lady [CYS] told her, if they're not in danger there ain't nothing you can do about it," said Getz. "The people that are supposed to come and check on them, there ain't no way they didn't see it was just a mattress on the floor."

Getz says they called in 2019. Charges were filed against the couple February 2, 2021.

"Did you ever call and complain about them?"

"Yes, I did. My wife called, and the neighbor up the street did. The lady [CYS] told her, if they're not in danger there ain't nothing you can do about it," Getz said.

Now, two years later, 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.

Child advocates say the timeline may be disheartening for the people who made calls but don't give up.

"Still, make the call, but also work with us to understand there is a disconnect sometimes," said Cathleen Palm, the director of the Center for Children's Justice. "The neighbors may have thought there would be kind of like rushing in, rescuing the child, taking them from the home, so we need the public to understand how child welfare works."

So, FOX43 asked Lebanon County Children and Youth Services to clarify the process. 

"When any report comes in, we review all of the prior reports coming into the agency and determine if the nature of those reports now warrant or merit an investigation," explained Administrator Erin Moyer.

Moyer says she couldn't go into specifics on the Duncan case.

"It's fair to say we are looking at history," said Moyer. "We are looking into these complaints and the concerns people are reporting. We're not simply writing them off."

Moyer says agency workers do make unannounced visits to reported homes periodically.

"Do people slip through the cracks?" asked FOX43.

"Our agency is only as good as the information provided. What might seem minor might amount to something major. Just report the things you're seeing because that is how ultimately things slip through the cracks," said Moyer.

Palm says more questions may need to be asked during and after the adoption screening process. 

According to information provided to FOX43 by the state, there is an initial screening, where people must certify they are healthy, provide finance records, and undergo criminal background checks and child abuse clearances. Then, there is a family profile, or meetings between potential parents and an agency worker to see if a home is safe for a child. Before adoption is finalized, there is a period of supervision and support for the child and new family lasting 3 to six months.

For information on how to begin the adoption process, contact the SWAN Helpline at 1-800-585-7926 (SWAN). There are two sides to the adoption process: preparing the child legally and emotionally for adoption and preparing the prospective family. Both involve a lot of evaluation, paperwork, and decision-making by judges, agencies, parents, and of course, the children themselves.

"It is true, you can vet people and screen people and they come out as fine, but then the stressors," warned Palm. "Child abuse is often times a cascading set of stressors that happen for people."

Palm believes more can be done to assist new adoptive parents and ensure they remain fit to be caregivers, including: Education on behaviors children may exhibit if they have been previously abused, how to appropriately respond when children misbehave, and education on how to handle stressors.

According to the criminal complaint, the couple's adopted 11-year-old son had to be rushed to Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center on Jan. 13, requiring immediate medical care after being unresponsive and hypothermic.

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.

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 to eat, 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.

"Frankly, jail is a far better existence than what that 11-year-old boy dealt with," said Lebanon County District Attorney 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."

Graf also 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."

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

   

According to court documents, the children made statements to the effect they feel safe in their new homes, and in the Duncan home, they felt unsafe and considered it "dangerous."

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