Warning: This article deals with a case of child abuse and may be distressing for some readers.
For the first years of Danielle Crockett’s life, only a handful of people knew that she even existed. Watched by her two half-brothers while her mother Michelle worked, she remained locked inside the walls of their small, rundown Florida rental.
It wasn’t until she was almost seven years old that Dani even went outside, felt the sun on her skin, sat in a car, was given a bed to sleep in and was properly bathed.
Her liberation came only after a concerned neighbour contacted authorities upon seeing her pale, gaunt face peering out a window of the Crockett’s Plant City residence in July 2005. It was this that saw her dubbed ‘the girl in the window’.
As The Tampa Bay Times reported in its Pulitzer Prize-winning story about the case three years later, the first on the scene were utterly disturbed by the conditions in which they found the young girl.
A state child protection officer was left sobbing beside her car, having witnessed the worst neglect she’d ever encountered. Plant City Police detectives walked into the home to find cockroaches crunching beneath their feet, scurrying up the walls, hiding in the freezer.
“I’ve been in rooms with bodies rotting there for a week and it never stunk that bad,” Det. Mark Holste told the paper. “There’s just no way to describe it. Urine and faeces — dog, cat and human excrement — smeared on the walls, mashed into the carpet. Everything dank and rotting.”
In a back room barely the size of walk-in-wardrobe was Dani, lying on a torn, soiled mattress. She was covered in lice, sores, and had faeces leaking from her bursting nappy. A pile of used ones was building in the corner.
She didn't speak, or communicate in any way as Holste scooped up her frail, 21kg body. As he carried her out of the home to take her to hospital, Michelle Crockett protested, questioning why they were taking her "baby".
“I said, 'How could this happen? How could you let this happen?’” Holste told The Oprah Winfrey Show. “She said, 'I'm doing the very best I can.' I told her, ‘Your best is not good enough!’”
Doctors determined that Dani had not been born with any physical or neurological condition. Yet she wouldn't make eye contact, couldn't speak or communicate, couldn't feed herself or use a toilet, would suck on her fists and bat at her toes like an infant.
Because of the neglect she'd endured - especially poor nutrition as a result of never being fed solid food - she was more like an infant, and disabled for life.
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Florida's Department Child and Families had visited the home twice before, but Dani remained. Michelle conceded her house was "a mess" but denied there was anything wrong with her daughter other than her lack of speech.
"[The detective] said she was starving. I told him me and my sisters were all skinny 'til we were 13," she told The Tampa Bay Times. 'I begged him, ‘Please, don’t take my baby! Please!’”
Dani's mother ultimately spent 26 hours in jail and was sentenced to two years of house arrest and three years of probation for her treatment of her children. She avoided prison in a deal that saw her parental rights terminated.
This allowed Dani to be adopted in 2007 by Bernie and Diane Lierow, the foster parents who ultimately raised her throughout her teenage years.
“When Danielle first came to live with us, she was a couple months from being eight years old," Diane told The Oprah Winfrey Show. "But developmentally she was between six months and 24 months. She didn’t like walking and she loved being carried."
At first she would have seven or eight tantrums a day, and food was a "constant concern"; “She would eat it until she threw up.”
While Diane loved her adoptive daughter and relished in each of her minor improvements and achievements, the pair were never able to bond - a sad fact she and Bernie attribute to Dani's distrust of mother figures. In the end, the unique challenges of caring for her contributed to their separation.
Aged 19, Dani now lives in a group home 90 minutes away in Nashville, Tennessee, where Bernie visits her every couple of weeks. According to The Tampa Bay Times, she still doesn't talk, but years of special education, therapy, doctors visits, love and attention mean she now listens when others do. She also lets her carer brush her hair, makes her own bed, and puts her washing in the basket. It's a marked improvement for a girl some doctors expected would end up in a nursing home.
It's still difficult to know how much Dani understands or remembers about her upbringing, but asked by a paper what the teenager likes doing best, her carer responded, simply: "Being outside."