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‘Horrific’ abuse against 5 children leads to guilty plea from Pa. adoptive mother


By Steve Marroni | smarroni@pennlive.com

LEBANON – When Pier Hess Graf went into the home of two accused child abusers, she sat down on the cold, concrete floor.

“I wanted to feel what it was like for that little boy on a daily basis for years,” said Graf, the district attorney for Lebanon County.

Investigators say that is the bare, frigid basement bedroom where the 11-year-old boy who received the brunt of the abuse was locked up. It’s where he slept with no mattress, was beaten, isolated and was given very little food and water.

“It was one of the most horrific scenes I’ve been to and knowing that it was suffered by children makes it that much worse,” Graf told PennLive Wednesday.

The abuse went on for years at the remote North Annville Township home until January, when the 11-year-old was rushed to the hospital, near death, leading to an investigation and charges against the children’s adoptive parents, Stephanie and Robert Duncan.

Authorities say Stephanie Duncan, 43 was the primary abuser. She pleaded guilty to all of the charges against her on Wednesday.

Appearing on video from prison before Lebanon County Judge Bradford H. Charles, Duncan entered an open plea, meaning there is no plea agreement as to the duration of her sentence.

She faces a maximum sentence of 288 years behind bars and up to $65,000 in fines for the 30 charges filed against her, which include aggravated assault, simple assault, conspiracy, strangulation, endangering the welfare of children and tampering with evidence.

Her sentence will be handed down at a hearing Dec. 22.

Her husband, Robert Duncan, 44, was sentenced last week to six to 30 years in state prison, Graf said.

Graf said through the district attorney’s investigation leading up to the pleas, she has been in contact with the five children. They are all handling their trauma in different ways, but the 11-year-old in particular is struggling, and is suffering from a great deal of psychological issues, she said.

But since the children were so abused, and every moment of their lives was regimented -- down to when they could sleep and when and how much they could eat and drink -- Graf said it was important to give them some say in the pleas. It’s about victim empowerment, she said, and trying to teach the children that there are adults who care for them and respect them, and to show the children they now have some control over their lives and their futures.

The five children agreed that Robert Duncan failed to protect them and did nothing to stop the abuse, though he did take a bigger role in it when the pandemic started and he was at home more often.

It was Stephanie Duncan who was the primary abuser, the children told Graf.

The investigation began after the 11-year-old was rushed to the Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and was found to be hypothermic, with a core body temperature of 85 degrees, court records state. He had unusually low blood pressure and bruises on his neck, shoulders, back, abdomen, hip and genitals. Investigators said doctors told them he did not have a pre-existing condition and the injuries did not appear to be accidental.

The boy showed signs of “serious bodily injury” resulting from exposure to cold, significant fluid restriction, possible ingestion of a sodium-containing liquid such as diluted bleach, and physical abuse, according to prosecutors.

He nearly died several times while being treated, records state.

An investigation soon revealed what authorities say was going on in that house. The Duncans had a vast litany of strict rules for the children to follow, and the consequences for failing to comply resulted in abuse, ranging from physical assaults to the removal of basic items from their bedrooms, like bedding, records state.

In separate interviews with the children after they were taken out of the Duncans’ custody Jan. 15, the children said they were subjected to hours of difficult chores, and the “rules” they had to adhere to dictated their lives down to the manner in which they consumed their food and water, the position in which they slept and when they could speak to each other or the Duncans.

Each child told investigators of deplorable treatment and violent abuse, much of it directed at the 11-year-old, who was rarely let out of his room in the basement, which had no heat source.

The children told investigators the 11-year-old was given very little food, mostly peanut butter, oatmeal and carrots. He was given less than a bottle of water per day and sometimes had to drink the cat’s water. He was even punished once for “stealing” water from the sink, the children recalled.

The children say he was forced to eat hot peppers as a punishment, and when he vomited, he was forced to eat that, as well.

The 11-year-old was also rarely around people and was not permitted to play with other children.

Investigators called it a “caste system” within the family, and all of the children were targets. The four sons were beaten and strangled and the Duncans also slapped their 6-year-old daughter in the mouth, according to investigators.

The children also had alarms on their doors, security cameras in their bedrooms and in a playroom, authorities say.

All five of the children had been adopted by the Duncans, Graf said.

“These are children they sought out and brought into their home,” Graf said. “They are child victims who are wholly dependent on their abusers.”

And the reason for the abuse? It was money, Graf said.

She told PennLive the Duncans had applied for and received government funding to help support their five adopted children, but instead of using the money to take care of the children, they spent it to support their lifestyle.

As an example, at the house, Graf noticed a package on the counter that had come from a gourmet chocolate monthly subscription. She asked the children if they ever had the chocolate for a treat, and the children told her that all of the treats like chocolate and ice cream were for Stephanie and Robert Duncan, while the children were rationed out their food and water.

“That’s a very small example of the control and abuse,” Graf said.

She hopes with the upcoming sentencing of Stephanie Duncan, and the new lives the children will be starting, that they understand “the abuse they suffered in the past will not be their future.”

2021 Oct 20