Bernie and Diane Lierow have five sons—they loved having a large family. But as their children grew up and left home, the couple realized they had more love to give, and talked about adopting a daughter this time.
It didn’t take long for the couple to make up their minds, and they soon attended a local adoption event and where prospective families met with many of the children.
Diane was surrounded by children, but she immediately zeroed in on a black and white photo of a girl who was not there. Drawn to her, she stood right in front of that grainy photo up on the bulletin board and asked to know more.
“I just felt drawn to her—something about her face, and her expression,” Diane said.
The couple inquired about the child, but the agency automatically warned them against it.
“All they would tell us was ‘you don’t want her,'” Bernie recounted.
But the couple pressed on, because they really felt they needed to know more.
“Finally one of the ladies told my wife, ‘there’s something wrong with her, she’s not up to par,'” Bernie said.
The couple was not ready to let this child go, so they asked for more information, digging into her background through conversations with case workers, who told a harrowing tale that eventually led them to even the police.
They discovered that this little girl had suffered a famously horrible life of neglect.
Danielle Crockett is known to many as “the girl in the window.”
In 2005, police in Plant City received a call from a concerned neighbor that there was something strange and awful happening in a nearby house.
They knew a woman lived there with her boyfriend and two older sons, but had never seen any sign of a small child—until one day they saw a gaunt little face staring out the window.
It was just the one instance, and then it never happened again. But the neighbor remembered her lost eyes and sunken face and reported it to the authorities.
The police arrived, along with child abuse investigators Detective Mark Holste and his partner, and they discovered an inhumane scene. After shattering a window to get into the house, one of the two detectives stumbled back out, and threw up.
One of the investigators was leaning against the car, crying, when Holste arrived. He asked whether they had assaulted her, if she was injured.
“She said, ‘No, it’s just one of the worst cases of neglect I’ve ever seen,'” Holste said.
The severity was soon evident to Holste, who discovered a home covered in feces and cockroaches—“literally tens of thousands of them crunching under your feet as you walked.” A stout woman demanded to know why the police were here, and her two teenaged sons were in the filthy living room as well. Then, as Holste ventured deeper into the building, they saw that there was indeed a little girl trapped inside.
At the back of a house, in a room the size of a closet, was a soiled boxspring mattress, a pile of diapers, and a small, disoriented child.
Having suffered years of neglect and horrific living conditions, the 6-year-old was only 46 pounds. Danielle couldn’t speak, couldn’t eat solid food; she was covered in lice and bug bites, and weighed near nothing as he picked her up and walked out of the house with her.
“The mother’s statement was: ‘I’m doing the best I can,’” Holste told The Floridian. “I told her, ‘The best you can sucks!’”
The appalling discovery shocked the nation, and the Floridian’s 2009 piece on the case won a Pultizer.
Although Danielle had not suffered other physical and cerebral disorders, she was years behind in mental development and nearly comatose for a long time after her rescue. About 85 percent of the brain is developed within the first five years of life, psychologist Kathleen Armstrong, who examined Danielle, told The Floridian. And Danielle had been completely deprived of that.
The girl was found to be mentally somewhere between 0 and 6 months, despite having turned 7 years old.
Doctors called her condition “environmental autism,” suggesting that because she had been deprived of human interaction for so long, she had completely “withdrawn into herself” and never learned to engage with people or be responsive.
“That child, she broke my heart,” said Judge Martha Cook, who oversaw Danielle’s dependency hearing.
Her birth mother lost her parental rights immediately, and Danielle spent six weeks recovering in a hospital before she was discharged. Then she was placed in a group foster home, while authorities fretted over what to do with her. Some thought the best case scenario would be a nice nursing home.
Danielle did not adjust immediately. How could anyone expect her to?
Her behavior was erratic—especially when it came to food. Having been starved for years, if she saw food anywhere near her she would eat it immediately, to the point of making herself sick. She had loud and agitated outbursts on a regular basis, and other times she would hide away in a corner. She didn’t know how to be close to people—and this lasted for over a year.
But a year and a half later, her case worker wondered if she could find a permanent home. It seemed impossible—why would someone adopt a feral, sometimes unresponsive child, out of all the children who needed homes?
When the Lierows read all of this in the reports, it was “very discouraging.”
“It made me cry, just to read how she had been kept and the conditions that she had been found in,” Diane said. “It was amazing how she had lived through what she had been through.”
But they felt like Danielle was meant to be part of their home, and they started to visit her in the special education classes.
“Every time we came, she would do something new that she hadn’t done before,” Diane remembered. During their first visit, she made clear eye contact with Bernie, and even reached out.
“It was just greatly encouraging,” Diane said. “It was like ‘Yes, there is a little person inside of there.'”
“She is reachable—it’s not going to be easy, that’s for sure,” she said.
Bernie felt similarly. After meeting Danielle, he had a dream, and it felt like he was being entrusted with this little girl. It felt like he was being told, “Take care of her.”
But it wasn’t without great trepidation that the Lierows welcomed her into their home.
“We didn’t know if she would ever be able to eat with a fork and a spoon,” Diane said. “You start to realize, ‘I don’t know how far this child will progress.'”
She would have tantrums seven or eight times a day and hated walking anywhere. That meant screaming at the top of her lungs and throwing herself on the floor, the Lierows said in a 2009 interview. Food was still a touchy area for Danielle, and she would eat until she threw up because she couldn’t yet understand control.
Still, both Diane and Bernie loved her as their own child.
And with great persistence and love, Danielle started to make progress.
She learned to use the bathroom by herself, and started to take on many of her self-care tasks herself. Things that seem trivial—like brushing your teeth—were monumental steps for Danielle to take, and she did so with the Lierows’s support and encouragement.
“She’s already gone way beyond any of the expectations that any of the specialists had for her at the time that she was found,” Diane told CBN in 2012.
“Little steps are big steps for someone who is disabled,” Bernie told OWN in 2014. “She’s learned to do things we never thought she would be able to do.”
Speech is still a difficult area for Danielle, but she’ll greet Bernie occasionally with a “Hey Dad,” and has even said “I love you” to her parents.
Having suffered terrible treatment from her birth mother, the Lierows learned that Danielle was wary toward female and maternal figures. She has been slow to socialize, but “she’s gotten through it,” they said.
“She’s still aggressive about [food],” Bernie told OWN in 2014. So they have to be careful to not let her eat herself sick. But with the way Danielle has been making progress, the Lierows now have higher hopes. “Being a part of society, that would be a big plus.”
Watch an interview with Bernie and Diane below:
And see a glimpse into Danielle’s daily life in the video below: