CYPRESS, Texas — WARNING: Contains graphic content
Zaikiya Duncan, 40, and Jova Terrell, 27, were arrested in Baton Rouge. Tuesday. She's charged with injury to a child and aggravated assault in Harris County. He's charged with continuous violence against a family member.
In charging documents obtained by KHOU 11, the 16-year-old boy and girl were questioned by investigators at Texas Children's Hospital. They described several examples of the horrific abuse that they said took place behind closed doors of the large home on Marina Alto Lane.
The boy said Duncan once gave him 24 Benadryl tablets to make him sleep and they caused him to have a seizure. After that, he said she lowered the dosage to 20 tablets. The girl was also given an unspecified amount of Benadryl.
The victims said their mother poured bleach down their throats and on their genitals until it burned their skin. She also made them drink cleaners like Lysol and Easy Off if they "talked too much," according to court documents.
They told the corporal they weren't allowed to use the restroom and were forced to defecate and urinate on themselves and then eat and drink it. They only had dirty water from a mop bucket to wash off.
They said their mother beat them with extension cords, curtain rods and other metal poles and Terrell often punched the boy.
The victims told the corporal they were starved and fed only mustard sandwiches, relish sandwiches or bologna sandwiches one to three times a week. Investigators said the twins were severely malnourished.
They were kept naked and handcuffed to a dolly in the laundry room and their feet were often zip-tied. Both have cuts, bruises and scars on their wrists and ankles, along with other parts of their bodies, court documents said
"When you see it in person, it just hits on a different level. It's so sad, it’s a flood of emotions," a woman who took them in said. "You just don’t understand how little innocent kids go through this."
Houston Children's Assessment Center psychologist Dr. Whitney Crowson said children who suffer this kind of abuse can recover with proper help.
“Oftentimes, we think there’s no way they can get through all of this, but children are so much more resilient than we give them credit for," she said. "Really, what they need is ongoing and consistent support.
To report abuse, call the Texas Abuse Hotline at 1-800-252-5400. They are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
How they escaped
The boy said he found the handcuff key in his mother's purse and hid it in his mouth. Around 5 a.m. Tuesday, they unlocked the handcuffs and ran door to door through the neighborhood pleading for help, court documents say.
The boy was shirtless and the girl was using a grocery bag for a shirt. Both were barefoot and shivering when a woman in a nearby subdivision answered her door even though she said she was "terrified."
"They said, 'Can you help us, can you help us?'" the woman said. "They were so skinny and so frail. They just looked like they had been through a lot."
She wrapped them in blankets and fed them, and said both were very polite even as they began describing some of the abuse.
"The more I asked and realized how severe the situation was, it was just a flood of emotions that came over me," she told KHOU reporter Anayeli Ruiz. "How a mother could do this to her kids and... I feel like my tears are out of frustration, anger and sadness."
The good Samaritan then called the Precinct 5 Constable's Office. The teens were taken to Texas Children's Hospital in Katy and deputies were sent to their home to investigate. By then, Duncan, Terrell and five younger boys, ages 8 to 14, were gone and an AMBER Alert was issued.
Hours later, Zaikiya Duncan, 40, and Jova Terrell, 27, were arrested in Baton Rouge. Only one child was with the couple when they were arrested. The other four boys were later found safe with relatives in Louisiana. All seven children were placed in Child Protective Service custody, according to authorities.
The twins who escaped told investigators their 12-year-old twin brothers were also abused and forced to stay in a restroom.
History of abuse
It's not the first time Duncan has been arrested and charged in connection with child abuse.
According to Louisiana court documents from 10 years ago, a then 5-year-old child of Duncan's was taken from school to a local hospital to be treated for burns to his feet, genitals, and other parts of his body. Doctors determined it was likely the result of being burned by hot water. The boy also had bruises on his torso, back, hip and buttocks.
According to the documents, when police went to Duncan's home, they found a 20-month-old child wrapped in clothing with his hands bound. The only other person in the home was the child's 4-year-old brother, according to the documents.
During questioning, police said Duncan admitted to routinely disciplining one child by making him get into a push-up position for up to an hour, causing the child's hands to swell. The child was also forced to sleep on the closet floor, court documents said. The door of the closet was blocked by boards to keep the child from "escaping" and "stealing food from the kitchen," court records said.
Police reported at the time that two of Duncan's other children also showed signs of abuse and were removed from the home. They said Duncan admitted she had been investigated for abuse of the children in the past. She was charged with cruelty to juveniles.
It's not clear how long Duncan and her Terrell have lived in the house on Marina Alto Lane, near the intersection of West Road and Fry Road. The teens said they had moved there recently.