The Girl in the Window
By Lane DeGregory
Children's Voice is reprinting the second half of an article by St.
Petersburg Times writer Lane DeGregory, winner
of CWLA's 2009 Anna Quindlen Award for Excellence in Journalism in
Behalf of Children and Families. In April, the article earned DeGregory
a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. The beginning of Danielle's story was published in our last issue.
Part Two: Becoming Dani
Teenagers tore through the arcade, firing fake rifles. Sweaty boys
hunched over air hockey tables. Girls squealed as they stomped on
Bernie and Diane Lierow remember standing silently inside
GameWorks in Tampa, overwhelmed. They had driven three hours from their
home in Fort Myers Beach, hoping to meet a child at this foster care
But all these kids seemed too wild, too big and, well, too worldly.
Bernie, 48, remodels houses. Diane, 45, cleans homes. They have
four grown sons from previous marriages and one together. Diane
couldn't have any more children, and Bernie had always wanted a
daughter. So last year, when William was 9, they decided to adopt.
Their new daughter would have to be younger than William, they
told foster workers. But she would have to be potty-trained and able to
feed herself. They didn't want a child who might hurt their son, or who
was profoundly disabled and unable to take care of herself.
On the Internet they had found a girl in Texas, another in
Georgia. Each time they were told, "That one is dangerous. She can't be
with other children."
That's why they were at this Heart Gallery gathering, scanning the crowd.
Bernie's head ached from all the jangling games; Diane's
stomach hurt, seeing all the abandoned kids; and William was tired of
Diane stepped out of the chaos, into an alcove beneath the
stairs. That was when she saw it. A little girl's face on a flier, pale
with sunken cheeks and dark hair chopped too short. (Editor's Note: The Heart Gallery photo is the cover of this issue.) Her brown eyes seemed to be searching for something.
Diane called Bernie over. He saw the same thing she did. "She just looked like she needed us."
Bernie and Diane are humble, unpretentious people who would rather
picnic on their deck than eat out. They go to work, go to church, visit
with their neighbors, walk their dogs. They don't travel or pursue
exotic interests; a vacation for them is hanging out at home with the
family. Shy and soft-spoken, they're both slow to anger and, they say,
They had everything they ever wanted, they said. Except for a daughter.
But the more they asked about Danielle, the more they didn't want to know.
She was 8, but functioned as a 2-year-old. She had been left alone in a dank room, ignored for most of her life.
No, she wasn't there at the video arcade; she was in a group
home. She wore diapers, couldn't feed herself, couldn't talk. After
more than a year in school, she still wouldn't make eye contact or play
with other kids.
No one knew, really, what was wrong with her, or what she might be capable of.
"She was everything we didn't want," Bernie said.
But they couldn't forget those aching eyes.
When they met Danielle at her school, she was drooling. Her
tongue hung from her mouth. Her head, which seemed too big for her thin
neck, lolled side to side. She looked at them for an instant, then
loped away across the special ed classroom. She rolled onto her back,
rocked for a while, then batted at her toes.
Diane walked over and spoke to her softly. Danielle didn't
seem to notice. But when Bernie bent down, Danielle turned toward him
and her eyes seemed to focus.
He held out his hand. She let him pull her to her feet.
Danielle's teacher, Kevin O'Keefe, was amazed; he hadn't seen her warm
up to anyone so quickly.
Bernie led Danielle to the playground, she pulling sideways
and prancing on her tiptoes. She squinted in the sunlight but let him
push her gently on the swing. When it was time for them to part, Bernie
swore he saw Danielle wave.
That night, he had a dream. Two giant hands slid through his
bedroom ceiling, the fingers laced together. Danielle was swinging on
those hands, her dark eyes wide, thin arms reaching for him.
Everyone told them not to do it, neighbors, co-workers, friends. Everyone said they didn't know what they were getting into.
So what if Danielle is not everything we hoped for? Bernie and
Diane answered. You can't pre-order your own kids. You take what God
They brought her home on Easter weekend 2007. It was supposed to be a rebirth, of sorts-a baptism into their family.
"It was a disaster," Bernie said.
Feral Girl Found in Siberia
A Reuters report in late May confirmed that Dani's case,
while spectacular, is unfortunately not unique. Authorities took
5-year-old Natasha into their custody after she was discovered in an
apartment in the city of Chita, Siberia, having been "brought up" by
dogs and cats for her entire life. She could understand Russian but
responded only by barking, the report said. Several of the girl's
family members also lived in the apartment, which had no heat or water,
but Natasha apparently never spent time with them. Malnourishment makes
her appear much younger-she looks like she's 2 years old-and she does
not eat with utensils or her hands but laps food from a plate. "The
unwashed girl was dressed in filthy clothes, had the clear attributes
of an animal and jumped at people," a police statement said, according
They gave her a doll; she bit off its hands. They took her to the
beach; she screamed and wouldn't put her feet in the sand. Back at her
new home, she tore from room to room, her swim diaper spewing streams
across the carpet.
She couldn't peel the wrapper from a chocolate egg, so she ate
the shiny paper too. She couldn't sit still to watch TV or look at a
book. She couldn't hold a crayon. When they tried to brush her teeth or
comb her hair, she kicked and thrashed. She wouldn't lie in a bed,
wouldn't go to sleep, just rolled on her back, side to side, for hours.
All night she kept popping up, creeping sideways on her toes
into the kitchen. She would pull out the frozen food drawer and stand
on the bags of vegetables so she could see into the refrigerator.
"She wouldn't take anything," Bernie said. "I guess she wanted to make sure the food was still there."
When Bernie tried to guide her back to bed, Danielle railed against him and bit her own hands.
In time, Danielle's new family learned what worked and what
didn't. Her foster family had been giving her anti-psychotic drugs to
mitigate her temper tantrums and help her sleep. When Bernie and Diane
weaned her off the medication, she stopped drooling and started holding
up her head. She let Bernie brush her teeth.
Bernie and Diane already thought of Danielle as their
daughter, but legally she wasn't. Danielle's birth mother did not want
to give her up even though she had been charged with child abuse and
faced 20 years in prison. So prosecutors offered a deal: If she waived
her parental rights, they wouldn't send her to jail.
She took the plea. She was given two years of house arrest,
plus probation. And 100 hours of community service. In October 2007,
Bernie and Diane officially adopted Danielle. They call her Dani.
"Okay, let's put your shoes on. Do you need to go potty again?" Diane asks.
It's an overcast Monday morning in spring 2008 and Dani is late
for school. Again. She keeps flitting around the living room, ducking
behind chairs and sofas, pulling at her shorts.
After a year with her new family, Dani scarcely resembles the
girl in the Heart Gallery photo. She has grown a foot and her weight
All those years she was kept inside, her hair was as dark as
the dirty room she lived in. But since she started going to the beach
and swimming in their backyard pool, Dani's shoulder-length hair has
turned a golden blond. She still shrieks when anyone tries to brush it.
The changes in her behavior are subtle, but Bernie and Diane
see progress. They give an example: When Dani feels overwhelmed she
retreats to her room, rolls onto her back, pulls one sock toward the
end of her toes and bats it. For hours. Bernie and Diane tell her to
Now, when Dani hears them coming, she peels off her sock and throws it into the closet to hide it.
She's learning right from wrong, they say. And she seems upset
when she knows she has disappointed them. As if she cares how they
Bernie and Diane were told to put Dani in school with
profoundly disabled children, but they insisted on different classes
because they believe she can do more. They take her to occupational and
physical therapy, to church and the mall and the grocery store. They
have her in speech classes and horseback riding lessons.
Once, when Dani was trying to climb onto her horse, the mother of a boy in the therapeutic class turned to Diane.
"You're so lucky," Diane remembers the woman saying.
"Lucky?" Diane asked.
The woman nodded. "I know my son will never stand on his own,
will never be able to climb onto a horse. You have no idea what your
daughter might be able to do."
Diane finds hope in that idea. She counts small steps to
convince herself things are slowly improving. So what if Dani steals
food off other people's trays at McDonald's? At least she can feed
herself chicken nuggets now. So what if she already has been to the
bathroom four times this morning? She's finally out of diapers.
It took months, but they taught her to hold a stuffed teddy on
the toilet so she wouldn't be scared to be alone in the bathroom. They
bribed her with M&M's.
"Dani, sit down and try to use the potty," Diane coaxes. "Pull down your shorts. That's a good girl."
Every weekday, for half an hour, speech therapist Leslie
Goldenberg tries to teach Dani to talk. She sits her in front of a
mirror at a Bonita Springs elementary school and shows her how to purse
her lips to make puffing sounds.
"Puh-puh-puh," says the teacher. "Here, feel my mouth." She brings Dani's fingers to her lips, so she can feel the air.
Dani nods. She knows how to nod now. Goldenberg puffs again.
Leaning close to the mirror, Dani purses her lips, opens and
closes them. No sound comes out. She can imitate the movement, but
doesn't know she has to blow out air to make the noise.
She bends closer, scowls at her reflection. Her lips open and
close again, then she leaps up and runs across the room. She grabs a
Koosh ball and bounces it rapidly.
She's lost inside herself. Again.
The Lierow Family Appears on The Oprah Show
Last March, Oprah Winfrey hosted a show about the
effects of neglect on young children. "Nearly everything we learn about
being human-how to speak, how to walk, everything-comes from the people
who raise us," Oprah said. "Today, we're going to look at what happens
when nobody does." Oprah talked to experts like child psychiatrist Dr.
Bruce Perry about what happens when children are neglected early in
life. "From a functional perspective for the developing child, neglect
is the absence of necessary stimulation required to build a certain
part of the brain so it can function normally," Perry explained.
Much of the hour-long show focused on Danielle's story of neglect and
her eventual adoption and recovery. Oprah interviewed police officers,
attorneys, caseworkers, and psychologists involved with Danielle's
case, as well as Lane DeGregory, the CWLA award winner who authored
this article. Danielle's adoptive parents, Bernie and Diane Lierow,
spoke about Danielle's progress since she became part of their family.
They said they have seen promising changes in her development over the
past few years. Diane said she's always seen potential in Danielle. "I
could see somebody in her eyes," she said. "There's a person in there."
But in many ways, Dani already has surpassed the teacher's
expectations, and not just in terms of speech. She seems to be learning
to listen, and she understands simple commands. She pulls at her pants
to show she needs to go to the bathroom, taps a juice box when she
wants more. She can sit at a table for five-minute stretches, and she's
starting to scoop applesauce with a spoon. She's down to just a few
temper tantrums a month. She is learning to push buttons on a speaking
board, to use symbols to show when she wants a book or when she's
angry. She's learning it's okay to be angry: You can deal with those
feelings without biting your own hands.
"I'd like her to at least be able to master a sound board, so
she can communicate her choices even if she never finds her voice,"
Goldenberg says. "I think she understands most of what we say. It's
just that she doesn't always know how to-or want to-react."
Dani's teacher and family have heard her say only a few words,
and all of them seemed accidental. Once she blurted "baaa," startling
Goldenberg to tears. It was the first letter sound she had ever made.
She seems to talk most often when William is tickling her, as
if something from her subconscious seeps out when she's too distracted
to shut it off. Her brother has heard her say, "Stop!" and "No!" He
thought he even heard her say his name.
Having a brother just one year older is invaluable for Dani's
development, her teacher says. She has someone to practice language
with, someone who will listen. "Even deaf infants will coo," Goldenberg
said. "But if no one responds, they stop."
William says Dani frightened him at first. "She did weird
things." But he always wanted someone to play with. He doesn't care
that she can't ride bikes with him or play Monopoly. "I drive her
around in my Jeep and she honks the horn," he says. "She's learning to
match up cards and stuff."
He couldn't believe she had never walked a dog or licked an
ice cream cone. He taught her how to play peek-a-boo, helped her squish
Play-Doh through her fingers. He showed her it was safe to walk on sand
and fun to blow bubbles and okay to cry; when you hurt, someone comes.
He taught her how to open a present. How to pick up tater tots and dunk
them into a mountain of ketchup.
William was used to living like an only child, but since Dani
has moved in, she gets most of their parents' attention. "She needs
them more than me," he says simply.
He gave her his old toys, his "kid movies," his board books.
He even moved out of his bedroom so she could sleep upstairs. His
parents painted his old walls pink and filled the closet with
They moved a daybed into the laundry room for William,
squeezed it between the washing machine and Dani's rocking horse. Each
night, the 10-year-old boy cuddles up with a walkie-talkie because
"it's scary down here, all alone."
After a few minutes, while his parents are trying to get Dani
to bed, William always sneaks into the living room and folds himself
into the love seat.
He trades his walkie-talkie for a small stuffed Dalmatian and calls down the hall, "Good night, Mom and Dad. Good night, Dani."
Someday, he's sure, she will answer.
Even now, Dani won't sleep in a bed.
Bernie bought her a new trundle so she can slide out the bottom
bunk and be at floor level. Diane found pink Hello Kitty sheets and a
stuffed glow worm so Dani will never again be alone in the dark.
"You got your wormie? You ready to go to sleep?" Bernie asks,
bending to pick up his daughter. She's turning slow circles beneath the
window, holding her worm by his tail. Bernie lifts her to the glass and
shows her the sun, slipping behind the neighbor's house.
Working with the Press
Carolyn Eastman, director of communications for
Children's Board of Hillsborough County, a CWLA member in Tampa,
Florida, played a pivotal role in getting Danielle's story written and
published. Eastman works on the Tampa Bay Heart Gallery, and she
approached Lane DeGregory to write about Danielle. "I thought her story
was an important one to share," Eastman said while on CWLA's radio show
in April. Eastman introduced Danielle's family and caseworker to
DeGregory and photographer Melissa Lyttle, which helped the Lierows
feel comfortable with sharing their story. Eastman hopes other agencies
will think about working with the media as a way to encourage
discussion about child welfare issues. "It's a delight that we have in
our community one paper that has the ability to report with this kind
of depth. And it's sad, because I think the story wouldn't have
happened also without a couple of ingredients, and the main one was
trust. The family obviously had to trust Lane very much. But the
agencies involved also had to trust that the story would be told
fairly, and that they would not be villianized," said Eastman. "They
were willing to take that risk, because they knew there was value in
reaching out to the community and having dialogue."
For more examples of CWLA member agencies working successfully with the
media, see the Management Matters article on page 24.
He hopes, one day, she might be able to call him "Daddy," to
get married or at least live on her own. But if that doesn't happen, he
says, "That's okay too. For me, it's all about getting the kisses and
For now, Bernie and Diane are content to give Dani what she
never had before: comfort and stability, attention and affection. A
trundle, a glow worm.
Now Bernie tips Dani into bed, smoothes her golden hair across the pillow. "Night-night," he says, kissing her forehead.
"Good night, honey," Diane calls from the doorway.
Bernie lowers the shade. As he walks past Dani, she reaches out and grabs his ankles.
Part Three: The MotherShe's out there somewhere, looming over
Danielle's story like a ghost. To Bernie and Diane, Danielle's birth
mother is a cipher, almost never spoken of. The less said, the better.
As far as they are concerned Danielle was born the day they found her.
And yet this unimaginable woman is out there somewhere, most likely
still on probation, permanently unburdened of her daughter, and
thinking-what? What can she possibly say? Nothing. Not a thing. But
none of this makes any sense without her.
Michelle Crockett lives in a mobile home in Plant City with
her two 20-something sons, three cats, and a closet full of kittens.
The trailer is just down the road from the little house where she lived
On a steamy afternoon a few weeks ago, Michelle opens the door
wearing a long T-shirt. When she sees two strangers, she ducks inside
and pulls on a housecoat. She's tall and stout, with broad shoulders
and the sallow skin of a smoker. She looks tired, older than her 51
"My daughter?" she asks. "You want to talk about my daughter?" Her voice catches. Tears pool in her glasses.
The inside of the trailer is modest but clean: dishes drying on
the counter, silk flowers on the table. Sitting in her kitchen,
chain-smoking 305s, she starts at the end: the day the detective took
"Part of me died that day," she says.
Michelle says she was a student at the University of Tampa when
she met a man named Bernie at a bar. It was 1976. He was a Vietnam vet,
10 years her senior. They got married and moved to Las Vegas, where he
drove a taxi.
Right away they had two sons, Bernard and Grant. The younger
boy wasn't potty-trained until he was 4, didn't talk until he was 5.
"He was sort of slow," Michelle says. In school, they put him in
Her sons were teenagers when her husband got sick. Agent
Orange, the doctors said. When he died in August 1997, Michelle filed
Six months later, she met a man in a casino. He was in Vegas on business. She went back to his hotel room with him.
"His name was Ron," she says. She shakes her head. "No, it was Bob. I think it was Bob."
For hours Michelle Crockett spins out her story, tapping ashes
into a plastic ashtray. Everything she says sounds like a plea, but for
what? Understanding? Sympathy? She doesn't apologize. Far from it. She
Danielle, she says, was born in a hospital in Las Vegas, a
healthy baby who weighed 7 pounds, 6 ounces. Her Apgar score measur-ing
her health was a 9, nearly perfect.
"She screamed a lot," Michelle says. "I just thought she was spoiled."
When Danielle was 18 months old, Michelle's mobile home burned
down, so she loaded her two sons and baby daughter onto a Greyhound bus
and headed to Florida, to bunk with a cousin.
They lost their suitcases along the way, she says. The cousin
couldn't take the kids. After a week, Michelle moved into a Brandon
apartment with no furniture, no clothes, no dishes. She got hired as a
cashier at Publix. But it was okay: "The boys were with her," she says.
She says she has the paperwork to prove it.
She goes to the boys' bathroom, returns with a box full of documents and hands it over.
The earliest documents are from Feb. 11, 2002. That was when
someone called the child abuse hotline on her. The caller reported that
a child, about 3, was "left unattended for days with a retarded older
brother, never seen wearing anything but a diaper."
This is Michelle's proof that her sons were watching Danielle.
The caller continued:
"The home is filthy. There are clothes everywhere. There are feces on the child's seat and the counter is covered with trash."
It's not clear what investigators found at the house, but they left Danielle with her mother that day.
Nine months later, another call to authorities. A person who
knew Michelle from the Moose Lodge said she was always there playing
bingo with her new boyfriend, leaving her children alone overnight.
"Not fit to be a mother," the caller said.
The hotline operator took these notes: The 4-year-old girl "is
still wearing a diaper and drinking from a baby bottle. On-going
situation, worse since last August. Mom leaves Grant and Danielle at
home for several days in a row while she goes to work and spends the
night with a new paramour. Danielle...is never seen outside the home."
Again the child abuse investigators went out. They offered
Michelle free day care for Danielle. She refused. And they left
Why? Didn't they worry about two separate calls to the hotline, months apart, citing the same concerns?
"It's not automatic that because the home is dirty we'd remove
the child," said Nick Cox, regional director of the Florida Department
of Children and Families. "And what they found in 2002 was not like the
scene they walked into in 2005."
The aim, he said, is to keep the child with the parent, and
try to help the parent get whatever services he or she might need. But
Michelle refused help. And investigators might have felt they didn't
have enough evidence to take Danielle, Cox said.
"I'm concerned, though, that no effort was made to interview the child," he said.
"If you have a 4-year-old who is unable to speak, that would
raise a red flag to me. "I'm not going to tell you this was okay. I
don't know how it could have happened."
Michelle insists Danielle was fine.
"I tried to potty-train her, she wouldn't train. I tried to get
her into schools, no one would take her," she says in the kitchen of
her trailer. The only thing she ever noticed was wrong, she says, "was
that she didn't speak much. She talked in a soft tone. She'd say,
'Let's go eat.' But no one could hear her except me."
She says she took Danielle to the library and the park. "I
took her out for pizza. Once." But she can't remember which library,
which park, or where they went for pizza.
"She liked this song I'd sing her," Michelle says. "Miss Polly had a dolly, she was sick, sick, sick..."
Michelle's older son, Bernard, told a judge that he once asked
his mom why she never took Danielle to the doctor. Something's wrong
with her, he remembered telling her. He said she answered, "If they see
her, they might take her away."
A few months after the second abuse call, Michelle and her
kids moved in with her boyfriend in the rundown rental house in Plant
City. The day the cops came, Michelle says, she didn't know what was
The detective found Danielle in the back, sleeping. The only
window in the small space was broken. Michelle had tacked a blanket
across the shattered glass, but flies and beetles and roaches had crept
"My house was a mess," she says. "I'd been sick and it got away from me. But I never knew a dirty house was against the law."
The cop walked past her, carrying Danielle.
"He said she was starving. I told him me and my sisters were all skinny till we were 13.
"I begged him, 'Please, don't take my baby! Please!'"
She says she put socks on her daughter before he took her to the car, but couldn't find any shoes.
A judge ordered Michelle to have a psychological evaluation. That's among the documents, too.
Danielle's IQ, the report says, is below 50, indicating "severe
mental retardation." Michelle's is 77, "borderline range of
"She tended to blame her difficulties on circumstances while
rationalizing her own actions," wrote psychologist Richard Enrico
Spana. She "is more concerned with herself than most other adults, and
this could lead her to neglect paying adequate attention to people
She wanted to fight for her daughter, she says, but didn't want to go to jail and didn't have enough money for a lawyer.
"I tried to get people to help me," Michelle says. "They say I
made her autistic. But how do you make a kid autistic? They say I
didn't put clothes on her - but she just tore them off."
After Danielle was taken away, Michelle says, she tripped over
a box at Wal-Mart and got in a car accident and couldn't work anymore.
In February, she went back to court and a judge waived her community
She's on probation until 2012.
She spends her days with her sons, doing crossword puzzles and watching movies. Sometimes they talk about Danielle.
When Danielle was in the hospital, Michelle says, she and her
sons sneaked in to see her. Michelle took a picture from the file:
Danielle, drowning in a hospital gown, slumped in a bed that folded
into a wheelchair.
"That's the last picture I have of her," Michelle says. In her
kitchen, she snubs out her cigarette. She crosses to the living room,
where Danielle's image looks down from the wall.
She reaches up and, with her finger, traces her daughter's
face. "When I moved here," she says, "that was the first thing I hung."
She says she misses Danielle.
"Have you seen her?" Michelle asks. "Is she okay?"
Is she okay?
Danielle is better than anyone dared hope. She has learned to
look at people and let herself be held. She can chew ham. She can swim.
She's tall and blond and has a little belly. She knows her name is
In her new room, she has a window she can look out of. When
she wants to see outside, all she has to do is raise her arms and her
dad is right behind her, waiting to pick her up.
St. Petersburg Times reporter Lane DeGregory and Times
photographer Melissa Lyttle met Danielle and her new family at their
home in February. All of the scenes at their house and in speech
therapy were witnessed by the journalists. The opening scene from Part
One and others were reconstructed from interviews with neighbors, the
detective, Danielle's care manager, psychologist, teacher, legal
guardian, and the judge on her case. Additional information came from
hundreds of pages of police reports, medical records, and court
documents. Michelle Crockett was interviewed at home in Plant City.
In June, Danielle's new parents sold their Florida home and moved out
of the state. Bernie built Dani a tree house. She recently began summer
St. Petersburg Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
Copyright St. Petersburg Times. Reprinted with permission.
To comment on this story, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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