Children's Voice July/August 2009

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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 blinking squares.

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 event.

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 shooting aliens.

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, seldom argue.

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 gives you.

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 to Reuters.


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 has doubled.

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 stop.

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 feel.

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 cotton-candy dresses.

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 the hugs."

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 Mother

She'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 with Danielle.

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 years.

"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 Danielle.

"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 special ed.

Her sons were teenagers when her husband got sick. Agent Orange, the doctors said. When he died in August 1997, Michelle filed for bankruptcy.

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 feels wronged.

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 Danielle there.

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 wrong.

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 in anyway.

"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 intellectual ability."

"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 around her."

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 service hours.

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 Dani.

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 school.

St. Petersburg Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Copyright St. Petersburg Times. Reprinted with permission.

To comment on this story, e-mail voice@cwla.org.


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