Twin brothers Zeke and Jay are running and jumping across the playground, pretending to be tiny sailors on a ship, fumbling with a toy telescope to find their great-grandmother Konnie Cruz.
The make-believe game is fitting, for Cruz is their lighthouse, a woman who guides and keeps them safe.
When the twins were almost 3 months old, Cruz and other family members learned the babies had been seriously injured by their teen parents.
Jay was in especially bad shape, and doctors didn’t know if he would live. He had severe brain damage, injury to his spinal cord, bleeding in the brain and two broken femurs, Cruz said.
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By the time Cruz arrived at Cook Children’s Medical Center, Jay was clinging to life.
“He was already in the ICU. He was on a ventilator,” said Christi Thornhill, a nurse practitioner on the hospital’s CARE Team, recalling when the twins arrived at the hospital in 2015. “He had a serious brain injury and rib fractures and femur fracture. All of that, at 2 months of age.
“That’s child abuse,” Thornhill said.
Zeke’s injuries — 21 broken bones — surfaced later, only after authorities learned that Jay had a twin and became concerned for his safety.
Jay underwent two brain surgeries — the scars on his scalp are an easy way to tell the identical twins apart. Doctors thought Jay would never crawl, walk or talk, but he has surmounted physical challenges. His medical records list “Shaken Baby Syndrome” and “victim of child abuse” as the reason for his injuries.
“He has beat all the odds so far,” Cruz said.
‘Prayer is powerful’
Cruz, 55, who goes by “Mama” now, is their legal guardian and gave up her job at a healthcare business to care for the twins at their home in west Fort Worth, near Benbrook.
She regularly shares stories and photos about the boys’ growth and recovery on social media, at church and with the Cook Children’s Medical Center staff who helped mend the twins.
Faith is a big part of their lives.
“Prayer is powerful,” Cruz said. “We have prayed so much for them.”
Jay’s injuries still linger, and Cruz said Jay continues to receive speech and motor skills therapy. She is worried about future learning issues that may reveal themselves as he gets older. She worries, too, about Jay getting enough sleep because he sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night, crying.
“He has a long road ahead of him,” Cruz said, adding that she worries about permanent damage to Jay’s brain.
Zeke’s physical injuries have healed, but both boys could face emotional trauma as they grow older.
Cruz also wonders how she will explain to the boys her and her husband’s transition from great-grandparents to parents.
“To them, my husband and I are Mom and Dad,” she said.
‘I need a hug’
The bond between Cruz and the twins demonstrates one of the key needs of young children on the path to recovery from child abuse and related trauma.
Denise Coover, a trauma care specialist and family therapist at Cook Children’s, said youngsters up to age 3 who have been abused may not be able to put their experience into words, but their bodies and brain can manifest trauma and carry it for years.
The effects of trauma show up in different ways, from showing signs of aggression or anxiety to having trouble sleeping.
24 percent of Tarrant County’s 5,162 confirmed child abuse cases in 2016 involved victims between the ages of 1 and 3.
Coover said research shows that unresolved trauma in childhood can shorten one’s life, with death coming up to 20 years sooner than for non-victims.
“This is hard research on the effects our early experiences have on our brain and body,” Coover said.
Intervention, therapy and medicine help with recovery, but Coover said the key for young victims is a strong caregiver who can guide them. She said abuse in the early years changes a person forever, but the stability of a caring, loving person brings an immense level of healing.
“This person, whether it is a grandparent or foster parent or an aunt or a biologic parent, this is that person that child comes to time in and time out for security to check in. ‘Hey, am I OK? Hey, I need a hug. I need a kiss. I need a whatever. I want to show you this wonderful macaroni art that I made,” Coover said.
No ‘parenting skills’
When Cruz learned that the twins’ parents were responsible for the injuries to Jake and Zeke, she confronted her great-granddaughter, who was 16 when she had the boys.
“Young parents without parenting skills,” Cruz said. “I screamed, ‘What did you do to the babies?’”
Bonnie Armstrong, executive director of the Shaken Baby Alliance, said young parents often find themselves in highly stressful situations as they care for their babies. She said too often they don’t get enough support from family members, who may be upset about the situation.
Armstrong said teen parents are children themselves whose brains are still developing, including the portions that control impulse. Families need to stay connected as teens struggle to feed, shelter and clothe their babies, she said.
“You are not trying to teach them a lesson,” Armstrong said. “They have already learned a lesson — being a parent is hard.”
Armstrong said in many cases of Shaken Baby Syndrome the perpetrator is a biological father ages 17 to 22 years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that the perpetrator is typically a male and is “primarily the biological father or the mother’s boyfriend or partner.”
Armstrong said she tells parents the goal of a caregiver is to cope with a situation by feeding the baby, checking a diaper or trying to figure out what the baby needs.
The twins were placed in foster care even as they were recovering from injuries, said Cruz, who became their guardian when they were about 8 months old.
In December 2014, the twins’ father, James Ryan McGlothlin, pleaded guilty to injury to a child — intentionally and knowingly cause serious bodily injury or serious mental deficiency, impairment or injury, court records state
As part of the plea agreement, the twin’s father received 10 years’ deferred adjudication. If he successfully completes the probation, no conviction will be on his record, court records indicate.
Cruz said her grandaughter completed two years’ probation on an endangerment to a child charge.
‘Always gentle with them’
The twins mother, who is now 19, said she and the father didn’t hurt the twins. She wonders if it was a friend who was in and out of the house where they were living.
“I know in my heart, as a mother, I would never do anything to hurt my sons,” the twins’ mother said. “I was always gentle with them. I was careful to hold them because they were so small.”
She said they pleaded guilty to charges in the case because they didn’t feel they had a choice.
I screamed, ‘What did you do to the babies?’
Konnie Cruz, great-grandmother and legal guardian of the twins
“They said they had enough evidence to prove us guilty,” the twins’ mother said. “We were young. We didn’t know anything about this. We wanted to keep fighting, but we knew we wouldn’t have a fighting chance so we couldn’t take it any further.”
The mother hasn’t seen the boys in months. She said the last time the twins’ father saw the boys was in spring 2015.
Cruz said there is a rift in the family as a result. Cruz said she loves her granddaughter, but feels protective of the twins.
“I have to think about these little boys now,” Cruz said.
Cruz marvels at the sight of Zeke and Jay — especially when they are sleeping. At their home in west Fort Worth, the boys share a room complete with toys, small trampolines and matching blue toddler beds with pictures of the Disney character Lightning McQueen. Disney characters and toys fill their little room.
Today, the boys are described as survivors who are fascinated with dolphins and carry a photo album of their recent Make-A-Wish trip to Walt Disney World. They are learning colors and numbers — signs the twins are heading to a normal childhood after traumatic first months.
“It makes me feel younger,” Cruz said of her role as their mother. “You have to have energy to keep up with these two.”