The Effects of Child Neglect
Experts say we can learn a lot about our own humanity by studying children who have been robbed of theirs. Over the years, cases of severe neglect have shocked and appalled people around the world.
In March 2008, a Honduran boy named Jason was rescued from a small, dark room where he was kept for years. At just 15 pounds, he was the size of an average 2 year old, but shockingly, he was 9 years old.
These incidents also happen close to home. In 1997, Texas authorities discovered a 9-year-old girl living in squalor. Her name was Victoria, and she couldn't speak or make eye contact. At the time, she hated wearing clothes and feared cars, doorways and toilets.
Victoria was taken in by a foster family, and since then, she's learned to use the bathroom, dress herself and communicate using simple sign language.
While extreme cases of child neglect may make headlines, Dr. Perry says these examples are just the tip of the iceberg. "Most people don't realize this, but there are twice as many neglected children in the United States as there are physically and sexually abused combined," he says.
Dr. Perry says at least 500,000 children every year are neglected by their caregivers. "It's like a silent epidemic," he says. "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."
When a child doesn't get enough stimulation early in life, Dr. Perry says the brain may develop differently. "That changes all kinds of functions, including the ability to form and maintain relationships," he says.
Photo: Melissa Lyttle/St. Petersburg Times/ZUMA
Neighbors knew a woman lived with her boyfriend and two sons in a house on their street but said they had never seen Danielle. Then, one day, a neighbor told authorities that she saw a little girl lift a dirty blanket and peer out of a broken window.
On July 13, 2005, police officers responded to the neighbor's call and went to the home in question. Once inside, Detective Mark Holste says he was struck by the living conditions. "There was animal feces on the floor. There was chewed-up food everywhere," he says. "There were cigarette butts everywhere, and there were spider webs hanging from the ceiling. There were thousands and thousands of cockroaches."
Watch Detective Holste return to the crime scene.
The officers found Danielle in one of the bedrooms. "When she saw me, her mouth dropped open, and she did the little crab walk into the corner, tucked her knees up to her, wrapped her hands around her knees and started making grunting noises," Detective Holste says. "I noticed she had insect bites from the top of her head to the tips of her toes. The only thing she was wearing was a diaper, which had been soiled for quite some time, and she weighed nothing."
Detective Holste says he picked Danielle up into his arms and carried her into the living room, where her mother was waiting. "I said: 'How could this happen? How could you let this happen?'" he says. "And she said, 'I'm doing the very best I can.' And I told her, 'Your best is not good enough.'"
At the time, Danielle was 6 years old and weighed just 43 pounds.
"She wasn't able to feed herself, but she would feed from a bottle," Dr. Rodriguez says. "Danielle was malnourished, and she was dirty and had several insect bites."
Danielle's physical appearance wasn't what shocked Dr. Rodriguez most. The most profound effect of her neglect was how she reacted to human beings. "She wouldn't make eye contact. She frequently pushed us away, kicked us away," Dr. Rodriguez says. "[She] would snarl at us, frankly. She behaved like an injured animal. We realized the safest place would be one of the caged cribs."
In all her years in public service, Judge Sheehan says she's never seen anything like Danielle's case. "I daresay most of us have not. It was really mind-boggling that a child was so devoid of social skills. She couldn't grab her sippy cup. She couldn't do positive/negative reinforcement regarding potty training," she says. "It was just the saddest thing that this child ... was being raised like a potted plant, literally."
At the time, Judge Sheehan says the allegation was that 4-year-old Danielle was being left with inappropriate caretakers while her mother was out of the house. "Our social service agency responded to the home, and the reports indicated that the child was sleeping on one occasion," she says. "They didn't get her up and speak to her and put themselves in a position to assess her developmental skills."
Though DCFS agents offered Danielle's mother a daycare referral, reports indicate that she was not receptive. "[They] encouraged her to put the child in daycare. She refused," Judge Sheehan says. "She later testified at trial she didn't think she needed any services. She was doing the best she could, and of course, hindsight is 20/20. Had we known what we know now, we would have removed her. Certainly, it would have been better to have done that."
By the time she got the case, Judge Sheehan says it was time to look forward and try to help Danielle, as opposed to dwelling on the past.
They said: "It is sad to realize the Department of Children and Families was in a position to help Danielle years before her suffering became widely known. We understand that speaking to Danielle during the first investigation would have allowed us more insight into the environment she was forced to endure. We have worked tirelessly to improve our child protective system."
"Our modern world is very different than the world that our brain is engineered for. In the world that human beings have lived in for centuries, there were many, many, many more people in our lives—aunties, grannies, extended family. We were in continuous relational interaction with each other," he says. "The developing child under the age of 6 had at least, in those typical settings, four developmentally mature individuals who would help protect, enrich and nurture these kids."
Thanks to the loving attention of many family members, Dr. Perry says the part of the brain involved in relational interaction got lots of stimulation. This helped people grow up with a tremendous sense of empathy.
Over the years, things have changed. "In the modern world, we have childcare settings where there's one adult and eight, nine, 10 kids," he says. "Then, in a home, you've got a poor, isolated mother who's got multiple children."
The consequence isn't what Dr. Perry would call neglect. "I would say that it is underdevelopment of a potential," he says. "Broadly, we are underexpressing the potential of our children to be humane. ... We aren't providing equal amounts of social, relational and emotional experiences to help them be compassionate."
Reporter: They say Danielle was a feral child.
Danielle's mother: I don't know what that...
Reporter: Meaning that she never had any interaction with humans.
Danielle's mother: No, that is not true. They accused me of making her autistic—environmental. And that's a crock. You cannot make a child autistic. You cannot make a child retarded. They just made me sound like I was some kind of a monster, and I'm not a monster. I love my baby. The only thing I was guilty of was a dirty house, and it cost me my child. I'm sorry. I love that baby. She's my life.
As for her state of mind, Lane says Danielle's mother was in denial. "She didn't take any responsibility for her actions. She felt a victim herself of bad luck, of the system, of police not talking to her."
When Lane asked if she had anything to regret, she says Danielle's mother said she regretted moving to Florida. "That was it. There was nothing about what had happened to her daughter or the condition that her daughter was in," Lane says. "Her only regret was moving here."
Eight months after Danielle was rescued, her mother was finally arrested. "She spent about 26 hours in jail, was released and vigorously fought against the criminal charges," Judge Sheehan says. "Ultimately, she entered a plea and the state gave her a deal." Danielle's mother was sentenced two years of house arrest followed by three years of probation.
"So she, all along—other than that 26 hours—is a free woman who is out to go on about life," she says. "Poor Danielle is left with the horrible effects for the rest of her life."
The Oprah Winfrey Show contacted Danielle's biological mother for a statement through her attorney. Her attorney has not returned our calls.
A temporary solution wasn't an option for Garet—she was looking for a family who would always be there for Danielle. "It was going to be hard work to adopt a 9-year-old who was wearing diapers, who was drinking out of a bottle, who doesn't speak," Garet says. "It was going to take a very special family."
Photographs of children who could not attend were hanging on a board at the event. "I just kept being drawn back to one photo, even though there were all these children running around having a great time that I could meet in person," Diane says.
When Bernie saw the photo of Danielle, he says he knew she was his daughter. "I knew it right from the beginning," he says.
During Danielle's first days in her new home, Bernie says she would throw tantrums seven or eight times a day. "She would scream at the top of her lungs, she would stomp, she would flail her arms, she would throw herself on the floor—they were pretty spectacular," Diane says.
Food was a constant concern for Danielle. "She was thinking about it all the time," Diane says. "As long as there was food out, she would eat it until she threw up. She would drink until she threw up. She didn't know when to quit, because she didn't know when she would see it again."
Instead of toys, Diane says Danielle would play with her shoes and socks. "Just sort of throw them around as if they were a toy. I don't think she understood that her shoes and socks weren't to play with," she says. "I don't think she really had much of anything to play with for a long time, so she just amused herself with whatever she could find, I guess."
Although she couldn't speak, Diane says she believes Danielle remembers her old life. "Yes, I do because when she first came, she would have nightmares. About every hour or two she would wake up screaming."
Danielle was evaluated in a playroom filled with toys, but Dr. Armstrong says she didn't know how to play. "She just wandered around up on her toes kind of. She would bite her hand, pull out chunks of hair," Dr. Armstrong says. "She would pick up objects, flip them in front of her face."
Communication was also an issue. "She didn't like to be touched. She didn't respond to any of the things that typical young children respond to, like music or bubbles or soothing or tickling," Dr. Armstrong says. "You'd look in those big, beautiful, brown eyes, and they were vacant."
Dr. Perry was one of the first people to use MRI technology to look at the effects inadequate nurturing and touch or lack of touch can have on the brain of a small child.
Dr. Perry compares a brain scan of a normal, healthy 3-year-old child with a child who was severely neglected his first three years of life. "The first thing is that the brain is a little bit smaller. The brains of really severely neglected children tend to be smaller than the brains of children who have not been neglected," he says. "The brain didn't grow and shrink. It just didn't grow.
On the brain scan, Dr. Perry also notices dark spaces in the neglected child's brain. "Big, big ventricular spaces, which will impact sleep, regulation of anxiety, regulation of mood, whether or not you're very happy or sad," he says.
"As you grow, the brain is essentially like a sponge," Dr. Perry says. "It's absorbing all kinds of experiences. So if a child is not held, touched, talked to, interacted with, loved, literally neurons do not make those connections, and many of them actually will die."
Simple things like eye contact, touch, rocking and humming can make all the difference to a baby, Dr. Perry says. "It makes neurons grow, it makes them make connections," he says. "Then, it makes the brain more functional."
Diane says Danielle can now use the bathroom on her own and has learned to use a fork. "For her to be able to actually fork her own food off of her plate and eat it, it took quite a while," Diane says. "Gradually, she got to the point where, at home at least, she doesn't overeat."
Unlike before, Diane says Danielle rarely has temper tantrums. "She smiles and laughs and just seems really happy and content," she says.
Danielle has also grown to love certain activities, like swimming. "She likes to do flips and somersaults underwater," Diane says. "She has a lot of sensory-seeking behaviors, and she likes to go down to the bottom of the pool and feel the deep pressure of the water on her."
As much progress as Danielle has made, Diane says she is less developed in some areas than others. "She has spoken a few words, but if she says something, you don't know if you'll ever hear it again," she says. "They're in there somewhere, but it's as if her brain can't connect to where she's stored them because it's not been developed properly.
William was included in the discussions about Danielle's adoption, Diane says, and they had him meet her beforehand. "He was taken aback at first and a little afraid of her at first," Diane says. "But they just connected. They work out great together."
Although she was able to have children on her own, Diane says adoption was always on her mind. "I just have felt for a long time, even before I met Bernie, that this was the thing I was supposed to do," she says.
When Dr. Armstrong first treated Danielle, she wasn't sure she would ever progress as far as she has. "It's so wonderful to see her, especially the pictures of her in the pool and moving around and showing delight when her parents are holding her," she says. "It warms my heart to see that, because I didn't know if she'd even go that far."
Diane says she's always believed that Danielle has potential. "I could see somebody in her eyes," Diane says. "There's a person in there."
See how Danielle is doing today
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