"She understands everything. There's so much more in her than she lets us see."
August 21, 2011 7:31 AM   Subscribe

Three years later, 'The Girl in the Window' learns to connect. An update on the progress of Danielle Lierow, a so-called "feral child" who was the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning special report in the St. Petersburg Times. Unlike another famously neglected young girl, Dani has not been the subject of intense scientific scrutiny, and appears to be living a normal family life as a well-loved special needs child--albeit one in a family in a rural area where resources, and access to services via Medicaid, are sometimes limited. posted by availablelight (29 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Wow. What an amazing testament to the will of the human spirit to survive.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:45 AM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

This really needs a NSFW tag; my clients don't need to see me all teary-eyed. Thanks for the update, availablelight.
posted by jwhite1979 at 8:09 AM on August 21, 2011

That man and woman are saints in my book. So moving.
posted by theredpen at 8:42 AM on August 21, 2011 [5 favorites]

This is the single most hopeful account of a feral child that I've ever read. All the others either died young or lived very badly. I hope the best for this sweet family.
posted by Countess Elena at 9:01 AM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

My favorite part from the original story

"The mother's statement was: 'I'm doing the best I can,' " the detective said. "I told her, 'The best you can sucks!' "
posted by Ideefixe at 9:12 AM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

My co-author went on Oprah to discuss this case and met with Dani and her parents. Clips from the show with her parents are in the link.

Our book, The Boy Who Was Raised as A Dog, deals with a similar case, which had a better outcome, probably because before the child was raised for a few years in a kennel, he'd had a loving grandparent raise him for his first 9 months. He was actually able to learn to speak and write and caught up developmentally. (The book is a series of Bruce's cases and explores how trauma affects the developing brain.)

It's a bit worrying that they don't see any mental health professionals, however. Bruce had offered to consult but they didn't follow up. These families with multiple foster kids that are always rescuing strays can do amazing, wonderful loving things but sometimes the "need to be needed" that often drives such parents can turn problematic. It's a very difficult issue since so few people are willing to take on these kinds of challenges.
posted by Maias at 9:21 AM on August 21, 2011 [29 favorites]

I can't believe her mother didn't end up in prison.
posted by SMPA at 10:07 AM on August 21, 2011 [5 favorites]

Near the beginning of the article, it says Dani's biological Mother, the one who neglected her so shamefully, got community service and house arrest for two years. That sickens me.

Either that woman needed serious mental help (in which case house arrest is about the worst way to handle it), or not.

And if she is mentally stable, she should be doing community service at least as long as Dani was in her care and subject to such neglect.

And why stop there?

Parents do not stop parenting after a couple years, so why should she go back to her life when her daughter is still struggling to get by? Maybe she should be doing community service until Dani is eighteen and no longer a minor. Under normal circumstances, a parent is responsible for her child legally into the child reaches the age of majority; since a child could choose to be an emancipated minor at 16, I'd even be okay with that as the cutoff date.

This woman should be doing some good to offset in some small way all the hurt and pain she has caused. A few months of community service and 2 years of house arrest is outrageous.

But the family that adopted Dani seems to have a good grip on the situation.

In six years, she's made very little progress, but that she has made any, I guess, is something to be thankful for. She can use the restroom. She recognizes and responds to her name. She can laugh, which must be the most rewarding for her foster family.

I wish the reporter had been able to observe her at school, to see the occupational and behavioral therapy and also how she interacts with the other kids, like the girls who recognized her at the fair.

I'd like to know how they were able to determine that she wasn't autistic--how do you test someone with her extremely limited ability to communicate for that? I doubt she will ever learn to read.

The sign language idea was a good one, but it doesn't seem to be bearing any fruit.

So sad. Dani's atory really emphasizes how important those early formative years are for language and social development.
posted by misha at 10:24 AM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

They got the mother to terminate her parental rights in exchange for the lighter sentence. A devil's bargain, but one that probably hastened Dani's care and placement.

Seems like the mother is, I'm not sure how to say this, but not very smart. I don't just mean not clever. I mean, the justifications she provides and the way she narrates her life story to the journalist in one of the links indicates that she has no reasonable concept of her situation, how it appears to others, or what raising children means. I don't think it's meanness or delusion on her part. For whatever reason (mental retardation?--not to besmirch the numerous number of lovely, functioning kind people out there with mental retardation--mental illness?), she's incapable of functioning or parenting to a level that even other species are capable of.

There's no moment in which she'll be self-reflective enough to understand this situation as we understand it.

I really really wish she were in jail though.
posted by vitabellosi at 10:55 AM on August 21, 2011 [7 favorites]

From the original article:

"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."

Michelle's community service hours were all waived, and her probation was cut short in 2009.
posted by palomar at 10:59 AM on August 21, 2011

I keep getting hung up on this line: "Her mom and Willie were shaving goats to show in the next day's county fair. "

posted by Joe in Australia at 12:05 PM on August 21, 2011

Maias, I was hoping you'd show up here. I share your discomfort that there's not more specialized care and intervention going on....it seems there should be some middle ground between free clinics and public school resources, and this horrifying scenario.
posted by availablelight at 12:29 PM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Wow. I have no words for how this makes me feel.
There exist people for whom deliberate torture would be too mild a punishment. To me this seems like literally the worst thing you could do to a person - to deprive them of the things that allow us to be more than animals.
I'm glad that at least some of the damage has been treated.
posted by bashos_frog at 12:35 PM on August 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh, I'm so glad she's doing better!

The line, "Bernie, 52, and Diane, 49, raise horses, goats, chickens, dogs and foster kids" bothered me, though. Foster kids and livestock should not be lumped together.
posted by coppermoss at 1:06 PM on August 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Made me cry.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:09 PM on August 21, 2011

Maias: I love that book - I didn't know that you wrote it.

bashos_frog:Wow. I have no words for how this makes me feel.
There exist people for whom deliberate torture would be too mild a punishment.

I used to work with special needs children, with a diagnosis of SED/DD (developmental disability + history of horrendous neglect & abuse). I only made it 8 months. I was being eaten alive with grief and anger for what had been done to these children, as well as the overwhelming despair that somewhere out there more of these children were being created everyday. I had fantasies about tracking down our kid's parents and beating them to death with a baseball bat. Blessings on any person who can do that work and not get sucked into the darkness. It damn near destroyed me.
posted by echolalia67 at 2:26 PM on August 21, 2011 [6 favorites]

Joe in Australia: The current fashion in showing animals in competition is to shave them first so you can see the muscles (at least out here, and it seems like it's a general thing for market [meat] goats and pigs at least.) I've seen articles by parents who showed animals when they were young, startled that their kids' animals are going up against an entirely shaven set of competitors. I've also heard that this actually creates problems when processing the animals, and 4-H has its own set of rules on the subject, so who knows what William and his father will be doing to the goats in a few summers.
posted by SMPA at 2:30 PM on August 21, 2011

Misha and others: Testing for Autism can be conducted even if the individual is non-verbal. The diagnostic criteria are based on observations, caregiver interview, etc. So, it could be done. The problem with Dani it seems is that one cannot determine the *cause* given the circumstances of her upbringing. So you can't really call it true, DSM criteria-based Autism because of the circumstances (I am not a psychologist and happily defer to one!)

Regarding "doubt she'll ever learn to read": think about her current functioning in terms of developmental levels. According to the reports, she can make eye contact, she communicates wants (bolting and meltdowns are forms of communication, just exactly WHAT she is communicating is the trick), and she laughs. Would one expect a 12 month old to read?

You'd be surprised what some people with low IQ will eventually be able to do. Maybe reading Twilight won't be possible, but identifying whole words in order to communicate might be possible. I'm certain all the therapists that work with her are doing the best they can.

One might lament the lack of clinical services, but the adoptive mother has a point in saying that there might not have been any benefit: clinical services are provided "out of context" most of the time. School-based services, however, are ENTIRELY in context if you think about it.

Will she ever be typical? Probably not. Could she be functional? Maybe. And it's that "maybe" that keep parents, SLPs, OTs, PTs, teachers, and social workers working hard every day: we've got to get to that maybe in our heads.
posted by absquatulate at 3:07 PM on August 21, 2011 [6 favorites]

Getting professional help in a case like this is no guarantee of help, especially since it's going to attract people more interested in research than helping.
posted by empath at 4:37 PM on August 21, 2011

Our book, The Boy Who Was Raised as A Dog, deals with a similar case,

Hey, I read that book! That's a good book! And, in my experience at least, a surprisingly, wonderfully optimistic book.
posted by meese at 4:51 PM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Empath: Research helps the people who help, and helpers help the researchers. Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater here.
posted by absquatulate at 4:56 PM on August 21, 2011

Empath: Research helps the people who help, and helpers help the researchers. Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater here.

Not exactly the turn of phrase I would have thought of using - perhaps this proves Empaths point.
posted by sgt.serenity at 5:04 PM on August 21, 2011

"Not exactly the turn of phrase I would have thought of using - perhaps this proves Empaths point."

FWIW, I am both, so, no, it doesn't.
posted by absquatulate at 6:51 PM on August 21, 2011

I mean you just have to look at what happened to the other feral child which is linked in this very post.
posted by empath at 7:17 PM on August 21, 2011

I so badly want to hug my 6 year-old daughter right now.
posted by Ratio at 10:00 PM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't believe that Dani was completely healthy/normal at birth. There are developmental conditions that don't show up at birth and that are hard for doctors to diagnose but seriously affect development even in the best of conditions.

After reading the first link, I kept asking: how is it possible to neglect a child this much? I grew up in a neighbourhood with a lot of poverty and bad parenting - and roaches crawling everywhere. It didn't affect whether kids learned to talk. Kids are like sponges - a normal kid has to be actively isolated or they will
learn language. I knew kids of drug addicts - they had some serious issues, but they talked and developed normally.

But in the original article, there are clues to what happened: Dani's mother is not bright and was seriously struggling. But Dani also wasn't completely isolated (as Genie had been) - she was around other people. Just hearing them talk should have led to speech development. Her mother knew something was wrong but was afraid to go for help.

The neglect of Dani was severe and clearly worsened her condition. Dani needed to be removed no matter what. But the accounts of her early childhood suggest that she was intellectually delayed to begin with.

I believe this because the accounts of her early childhood sound a lot like that of child I know. She was also failing to hit mile stones, but in her case her guardian had access to speech therapy and occupational therapy - and the wherewithal to use it - which means that today she is a healthy, happy girl who talks all the time (making up for lost time). But she is still developmentally delayed (about the same intelligence as Dani's mother) and always will be.

In poverty in both the developed and developing world, children develop normally in some truly horrific conditions - and with large amounts of neglect from an early age. I think the story here is a bit more complicated: Dani had developmental issues to begin with, which her mother (and older brothers) didn't know how to cope
with and at a time when it sounds like her mother's coping skills were falling apart. Her mother should have given her up, but the situation doesn't sound as black and white as it did on first appearance.
posted by jb at 5:42 AM on August 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I think jb is on right track: Dani probably inherited some kind of profound learning disability from her mother, whose appalling behavior clearly reflects an extreme lack of intelligence, not just "evil," though the outcome certainly was. I think Dani was also a bit more isolated than jb suggests; she seems to have been locked away in her own room and the mother wasn't exactly bringing lots of people home to talk.

The mother's own language use was probably intensely impoverished: research finds that in some households headed by uneducated parents, kids hear half the number of unique words that those growing up with more educated parents do. That alone can obviously seriously affect language development.

In the "Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog" case there were several other factors that helped lead to a better outcome: one, as I noted above, he had 9 months of good parenting at the earliest critical developmental time, just after birth. Second, he was caged with dogs, which are social and provided at least tactile comfort and some stimulation, so he wasn't in a bare room alone. Third, he was discovered at 6, which basically gave him 2 fewer years of neglect than Dani had, one of them very early on.

Children have an amazing capacity for resilience but extreme neglect in the first three years can leave a permanent mark on even the most resilient.
posted by Maias at 2:11 PM on August 22, 2011

Yeah, I can't remember whether this is mentioned in the followup article, but the original series made it clear that not just the mother, but her older (half) brother was intellectually challenged--at least one early neglect report mentioned that she was being left in the care of a developmentally disabled sibling. All the more reason why lack of early stimulation, affection, and medical care was particularly devastating for her.
posted by availablelight at 5:30 PM on August 22, 2011

...to be more clear: it seems very possible that she was born with some inherited challenges, which were tragically compounded by the abuse and neglect she experienced during a critical developmental window.
posted by availablelight at 5:32 PM on August 22, 2011

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