The Girl In The Window
By Audra Smith Haney
The 700 Club
CBN.com -Bernie and Diane Lierow have always enjoyed having a large family. After 4 of their 5 boys were grown and out of the house, they decided it was time to add a daughter to the family—this time, by adoption.
The Lierows attended an adoption event where more than one hundred available children met prospective parents. Though Diane was surrounded by dozens of healthy children, she was drawn to the grainy black and white photo, of a girl…who was unable to attend that day.
“When we saw Danielle's picture that day at the event, on the bulletin board, I just felt drawn to her,” Diane said. “Something about her face and her expression...”
“Mostly all they would tell us is ‘you don't want her,’” Bernie said. “And it's like, ‘Well, we really want to know more.’ Finally, one of the ladies told my wife, ‘there is something wrong with her. She is not up to par.’”
Despite the dire warning, the Lierows followed up with the agency to find out more about the child. Caseworkers painted a horrific picture of child abuse. Detective Mark Holste was one of the first to discover the abuse.
“In 2007, my new partner and I were dispatched to this location because alleged neglect of a female child was all we had,” Detective Holste said. “When we got here that particular day, the investigator had already been inside the house without us and she was already back out and she was leaning against her car crying, just sobbing. When I approached her, I talked to her; I said ‘What’s the problem” Are you OK? Are you hurt? Did they assault you?’ she said, ‘No, it’s just the worst case of neglect I’ve ever seen.’”
“My partner had gotten sick and he had to go outside because of the cockroaches, the animal feces, because the cats and dogs were everywhere,” Detective Holste said. “The cockroaches were just literally tens of thousands of them crunching under your feet as you walked. The odor of the house was just very, very pungent and very overpowering.”
Detective Holste entered a small room in the back of the house, no bigger than a walk-in closet.
“There was no bed in the room.” Detective Holste said. “There was a box spring mattress on the floor. The mattress had been soiled many, many times.”
“There was a-a pile of diapers in the corner that had been stacked over and over again,” Detective Holste said. “There was insect activity on the diapers, flies, gnats. In the corner, on the edge of the mattress there was child, which was Danielle Crockett.”
When Detective Holste found Danielle, she was seven years old and weighed 46 pounds. She couldn’t talk, respond to others, or eat solid food. Danielle was a true ‘feral child.’
“The best we could determine, she’d never been outside the house, based on what the neighbor’s told us,” Detective Holste said. “The only reason we knew anything, one of the neighbors said they saw her looking out of the broken window one day. I’ve been in law enforcement for 27 years now, and this is by far, bar none, the worst case of child neglect I’ve ever come across in my career.”
Danielle’s biological mother lost her parental rights immediately and Danielle was sent to a hospital for urgent care.
“It made me angry,” Diane Lierow said. “It made me cry just to read how she had been kept and the conditions which she had been found in. It’s just surprising that she actually lived through what all she’d been through; that she was actually able to hold on and make it until she was removed.”
Doctors and therapists diagnosed Danielle with “environmental autism,” and informed the Lierows that her basic care needs would be overwhelming.
“When we read the psychiatric reports on Danielle, it was very discouraging,” Diane said. “She was functioning between 0 and 6 months on pretty much all the levels of development other than she was able to walk. She grew up so isolated from the world and it has left a lifelong impact on her ability to relate to others.”
But, Bernie and Diane knew Danielle was still supposed to be a part of their family. As they moved through the adoption process, Danielle lived in a group home. She attended school for the first time and was placed in special education classes. This is where Bernie and Diane met her.
“I think our confidence was built during the first few visits we had at Danielle's school, where every time we came she would do something new that she hadn't done before,” Diane said. “The very first visit, she made really good eye contact with Bernie, actually reached out for him.”
“It was just greatly encouraging...it is like, ‘Yes! There is a little person in there and she is reachable.’ It is not going to be easy, that is for sure, but we can make some progress here,” Diane said.
And Bernie’s resolve was solidified after a dream.
“I felt like the Lord kind of handed her to me,” Bernie said. “He said, ‘This is Mine to give to you,’ and He just handed her off to me and He says, ‘Take care of her.’
On Oct. 29th, 2007, the former feral child became Danielle Lierow and for the first time in her life, she had a loving family. But, the Lierows still had many challenges ahead.
“When we first got Danielle, we didn't even know if we would be able to potty train her, if she would ever use the bathroom; we didn't know if she would ever eat with a fork and a spoon,” Diane said. “You start realizing, ‘Okay, I don't know how far this child will go, I don't know what goals to set, but obviously they can progress from where they are at.’”
“You just love this child the way she is,” Bernie said. “She is my kid and that’s it. Sometimes, it is a 24/7 thing, but there are always rewards.”
Today, Danielle lives on a lively Tennessee farm with her parents and has made stunning progress.
“She uses the bathroom. She swims. She goes horseback riding,” Diane said. “She does a lot of self care tasks independently. Even though they seem like small miniscule accomplishments, they are huge to her, because she has gone way beyond the expectations that any of the specialists had for her at the time she was found.”
Though Danielle has yet to talk, she has made remarkable strides in learning to communicate non-verbally.
She is working on a picture exchange system where she gives me a picture and I give her the object,” said Diane Kirby, Danielle’s school teacher. “She also is working on money and identifying coins. She works on colors and sorting, of course life skills in general. She wants someone to challenge her. She wants to be taught. She wants to learn.”
“I think a lot of it has to come from God and she feels safe. She feels secure,” Diane said. “She’s arrived at the place where she was meant to be.”
Danielle’s victorious spirit has made waves all over the world. Her story was covered in a Pulitzer Prize winning article from the St. Petersburg Times in 2008. When the story ran the website of her former adoption agency was flooded, as thousands of people logged on to consider adoption. Diane and Bernie have also written a book entitled Dani’s Story.
“I think the most beautiful thing about adoption is, the child is given a second chance at life,” Diane said. “There are so many children out there that need foster homes and need adoptive homes. There are so many rewarding things in watching a child that has come to you broken and discouraged and just watching them flourish and grow and blossom. There is a huge reward and a huge joy there.”
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