We Put the Girl in the Window
This story just breaks my heart. A 7-year old girl who was so neglected that she became a "feral child" -- completely unable to relate to other people, process emotions, or relate to the world.
"I've been in rooms with bodies rotting there for a week and it never stunk that bad," Holste said later. "There's just no way to describe it. Urine and feces -- dog, cat and human excrement -- smeared on the walls, mashed into the carpet. Everything dank and rotting."
Tattered curtains, yellow with cigarette smoke, dangling from bent metal rods. Cardboard and old comforters stuffed into broken, grimy windows. Trash blanketing the stained couch, the sticky counters.
The floor, walls, even the ceiling seemed to sway beneath legions of scuttling roaches.
First he saw the girl's eyes: dark and wide, unfocused, unblinking. She wasn't looking at him so much as through him.
She lay on a torn, moldy mattress on the floor. She was curled on her side, long legs tucked into her emaciated chest. Her ribs and collarbone jutted out; one skinny arm was slung over her face; her black hair was matted, crawling with lice. Insect bites, rashes and sores pocked her skin. Though she looked old enough to be in school, she was naked -- except for a swollen diaper.
"The pile of dirty diapers in that room must have been 4 feet high," the detective said. "The glass in the window had been broken, and that child was just lying there, surrounded by her own excrement and bugs."
When he bent to lift her, she yelped like a lamb. "It felt like I was picking up a baby," Holste said. "I put her over my shoulder, and that diaper started leaking down my leg."
The authorities had discovered the rarest and most pitiable of creatures: a feral child.
The term is not a diagnosis. It comes from historic accounts -- some fictional, some true -- of children raised by animals and therefore not exposed to human nurturing. Wolf boys and bird girls, Tarzan, Mowgli from The Jungle Book.
"In the first five years of life, 85 percent of the brain is developed," said Armstrong, the psychologist who examined Danielle. "Those early relationships, more than anything else, help wire the brain and provide children with the experience to trust, to develop language, to communicate. They need that system to relate to the world."
The importance of nurturing has been shown again and again. In the 1960s, psychologist Harry Harlow put groups of infant rhesus monkeys in a room with two artificial mothers. One, made of wire, dispensed food. The other, of terrycloth, extended cradled arms. Though they were starving, the baby monkeys all climbed into the warm cloth arms.
"Primates need comfort even more than they need food," Armstrong said.
Thankfully she was found by a great set of adoptive parents who are doing everything they can to love her and help her. As I read the story I wanted so hard to find a villain. Somebody that I could hate for doing this to a child. But it's hard to really blame the mother.
A judge ordered Michelle [Danielle's mother] 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."
If there's any villain here, I think it's humanity. We rebelled against God and decided that we wanted to do everything ourselves. We wanted to know both good and evil. We wanted to make our own decisions about right and wrong. We wanted to rule the universe and we wanted God to get out of our way. This is the end result. This is what our sin looks like. Is it fun yet?