Child of a Lesser God

It was a modern-day horror story: a little girl hidden away in rat-infested squalor for most of her life. When the authorities took her away from her mother and grandmother, the nine-year-old had never been to school or played outside.

December 2000By Comments

The house was on Blanco Street, in the heart of Old West Austin, less than a mile southwest of the state capitol. The front porch was rotted and sagging. Instead of curtains, a tattered blanket had been placed across the front window. When the wind was right, the smell of urine and feces seeped past the wildly overgrown hedges in the front yard and drifted toward the street.

It was the autumn of 1997, and Old West Austin was becoming one of the city’s hottest neighborhoods for urban baby boomers. Less than two blocks away from the house on Blanco Street, venture capitalists and high-tech entrepreneurs were meticulously restoring grand two-story homes worth as much as $1 million. A developer was building luxury condos. Even the smallest tear-downs on 50- by 120-foot lots were selling for more than $100,000. Real estate agents were canvasing the neighborhood, looking for older residents who would be interested in selling.

But few people dared to approach the dilapidated frame house. Sometimes a mysterious high-pitched squeal could be heard coming from inside the home—a sound that a small wild animal might make. "It was like a haunted house in a fairy tale," said one area resident. "You'd walk past and ask yourself, 'What could possibly be going on in there?'"

It was assumed by the residents of the neighborhood that two women lived there—an elderly lady who rarely brushed her hair and a pale, tiny, birdlike woman, probably in her mid-forties, who wore faded, flowery dresses. The younger woman was seen more often around the neighborhood. A few days a week she walked to the bus stop to catch a bus to a Furr's cafeteria, where she worked for minimum wage on the serving line. But, like the older lady, she didn't speak to others. Some people thought she was mentally handicapped. She timidly averted her head when anyone said hello to her.

It wasn't those two women, however, who stirred the neighborhood's greatest curiosity. Every now and then, a child's face peered briefly through one of the dirty windows of the house on Blanco Street. At least that's what a few of the neighbors thought they saw: the face of a little girl, her palms against the glass, regarding whatever she was looking at with a solemn, almost sorrowful expression. Then, ghostlike, her face would disappear.

That was what prompted the first anonymous call, in December 1994, to the state's Child Protective Services hotline, asking about the people inside the house. But the CPS never followed up, citing insufficient information. Another call about the girl came in about a month later. After a third call in late 1995, a young, inexperienced CPS investigator did drop by and talk to one of the women, but if he saw any problems with the girl, he didn't report it to anyone.

It wasn't until October 14, 1997, after a fourth call was made about the girl, that a caseworker named Kathryn Allen went to the house and told the old woman that she needed to step inside. What she saw nearly made her knees give way. The older lady, Edna Barr, and the woman in the faded, flowery dress, her 49-year-old daughter, Diana, had abandoned the house except for the dining room, the living room, and a small bathroom that was full of dirt, with dried feces smeared on the walls. A refrigerator, a microwave, and several decaying couches were crammed in the living room. In the dining room were a small cot and couches covered with tattered quilts. Trying to hold back the feeling of nausea rising in her throat, Allen counted nine large rats climbing up the molding around the windows and rooting through the trash, soft-drink cans, and stacks of paper on the floor. In a court affidavit, she later wrote, "The rats were not afraid of humans and did not run away."

Allen then turned toward the girl. Her name was Victoria. She was nine years old, and she was wearing a torn, dirty nightshirt. She was an obese child, maybe 160 pounds. Most of her teeth had rotted, and the only noises she made were squeaking sounds. It was as if she was imitating the rats who lived with her.

It was almost impossible to believe that something so horrific could have happened: In the midst of a bustling, urban neighborhood, a child had been hidden away in squalor for most of her life. She had never played outside. She had never been around other children. She had never been to school. She didn't speak—not even a single word—nor did she seem to recognize other people's speech. She was, in many ways, the modern-day version of the infamous "wild boy of Aveyron," who in 1800 had emerged naked and grunting out of the forests of southern France. That boy, who later was named Victor, became a cause célèbre among the Rousseau-influenced scientists and philosophers who believed they could find a way to restore him to a civilized life. He was also the inspiration for François Truffaut's 1969 movie, L'Enfant Sauvage (The Wild Child). Their experiments were only mildly successful, however, and Victor was put in a small house and eventually forgotten, dying alone when he was about forty years old.

There was little reason to believe that Victoria's future would turn out any better. When she was found, her behavior was more like that of a frightened feral animal than that of a human being. She was so terrified about being put in a car that she had to be picked up by CPS caseworkers and Austin police officers and placed in the back seat. At the Children's Shelter and Assessment Center of Texas (now the Austin Children's Shelter), one of the organizations that handles the city's severest cases of child abuse and neglect, the staff and volunteers—even the other abused and neglected kids who were there—stared at her as if they couldn't believe what they were seeing. Draped in a sheet, her hair matted down, she urinated on the floor and attempted to cover it up like a cat. Because she had never been given the chance to exercise, her balance was off; she swayed from side to side as she walked. When female staffers tried to give her a bubble bath, she stared at the bathtub in bewilderment. Apparently, she had no idea what a bathtub was used for. It took more than an hour to get her into the water. Staffers blew soap bubbles and gave her little rubber ducks. But Victoria seemed oblivious to what was happening around her. Her eyes never met the eyes of other people. Afterward, she huddled in a corner next to a mattress that had been put on the floor for her and she made her squeaking sound over and over. She drank water and ate only bread. All other foods she threw to the ground.

The news of Victoria's discovery sent shock waves through Austin. A citizen's commission was convened to determine how a little girl could have been missed by all of the city's and the state's social service agencies. A state district judge used Victoria's story as a catalyst to write a scathing report about the need for additional, better-qualified CPS investigators. Neighborhood residents found themselves justifying to reporters—and to one another—why they had not done anything to intervene. For one thing, they said, they were never sure there was a problem. What were they supposed to do? Break down the door and grab her? What if she was someone's grandchild paying a visit? Still, the lack of response by the neighbors was remarkable. "It's amazing to me that no one had gone up there and asked if there was anything they could do to help the family out," said one social worker who later became involved in Victoria's case.

What most Austin citizens wanted to know was why Victoria's mother and grandmother were not immediately thrown in jail for child abuse. Outside the county courthouse, where a hearing had been held to give the state permanent custody of Victoria, television crews raced down a sidewalk to get shots of Edna and Diana Barr in their ancient dresses and carrying cheap vinyl purses as they waited for a bus to take them home. "They looked like something out of Deliverance," says an Austin newspaper reporter.

Social workers who worked with Edna believed she was afflicted with a mild form of dementia, and a court-ordered psychological examination of Diana revealed that she was at a first-grade level in reading, spelling, and arithmetic. The examination also found that Diana had "little inclination to independently assess or judge situations herself." Except for Diana's work at the cafeteria and occasional trips to the grocery store, the two women had almost no contact with the rest of the world when they were raising Victoria. They apparently liked to spend long stretches of their days saying little, with the lights off. They didn't cook. The food in their house consisted mostly of juice, milk, cereal, bread, and TV dinners. They rarely turned on the television, and their only reading material was a Bible.

But were they the monsters the press was making them out to be? To CPS investigators, who didn't ask that criminal charges be filed, Edna and Diana didn't even begin to fit the profile of abusive adults. "I know this sounds strange," said CPS caseworker Maryann Fisher, who has a Ph.D. in educational psychology, "but the more time you spent with them, the more you realized they didn't have a mean bone in their bodies. They loved Victoria. They never abused her. They just didn't have the skills or the mental facilities to take care of themselves, let alone to take care of her."

Recently I spoke to Diana, and she was indeed a meek, fragile woman, wringing her hands anxiously as she talked. (After Victoria had been taken and had become a ward of the state, Diana and Edna sold the Blanco house and moved into a North Austin apartment.) It was also obvious that Diana was limited intellectually. When I asked her, for instance, why she and her mother didn't try to kill the rats in the house, she said, "Well, we were afraid."

Afraid of what? I asked.

"Afraid our little dog would eat the rat poison and die."

Diana's father, who married Edna in the forties, worked as a butcher at the Texas School for the Deaf in Austin. Because of learning disabilities, Diana spent her school years in special-education classrooms, and after high school, she remained at the house on Blanco Street. In 1987, when she was 36 years old, the unmarried Diana, still living at her parents' house, got pregnant (she has never said who impregnated her). Victoria was delivered on January 30, 1988.

What happened next is still a mystery to CPS caseworkers. They do think that the dynamics of the family changed significantly when Diana's father, who had kept the house in some order, fell seriously ill in the early nineties and eventually died in 1995. Without him, Edna and Diana were lost. They withdrew with Victoria into their home, even as it crumbled around them. Perhaps, one CPS supervisor would later surmise, they felt they needed to hide Victoria as a way of protecting themselves. With Victoria out of sight, they'd never have to worry about a social worker arriving and declaring them unfit to raise a child. But Diana told me that they kept Victoria inside "because we didn't know what else to do for her. She was acting different, funny. She wasn't talking. She wasn't responding the way a little girl should." Diana began blinking back tears. "I didn't want her to have to go through what I did. I didn't want her going to school and being teased like they did to me."

Experts who have studied Victoria say it is likely she suffered from some sort of brain disorder. But to what degree? How much of her behavior was because of a birth defect, and how much of it was a result of years in her isolation tank of a home? While Diana's father was still alive, Victoria was taken to a pediatrician until she was just shy of two years old. (After the father's death, neither Diana nor Edna took Victoria to a doctor again.) The doctor's records never noted any abnormalities in the child. There was no sign of retardation, autism, or muscle or nerve damage that would have prevented Victoria from speaking. After she was taken from the home in 1997, she underwent a battery of tests—an MRI, an EEG, an autonomic brainstem response, and more recently, a Fragile X test—all designed to look for abnormalities in the brain or chromosomal damage that would suggest mental retardation. Every test suggested she was normal. After giving her another series of intelligence and behavior tests, a researcher reported that Victoria scored "profoundly retarded." But, the researcher also warned, "This can by no means be accepted as an accurate picture of her abilities due to her language deficit, lack of motor skills, and lack of exposure to the outside world."

In other words, as disturbed as Victoria appeared, there was no way of gauging her potential. There was no way of telling what might happen to her if she were given a chance at a new life, with new surroundings. Would she be able to learn? Would she be able to speak? Would she be able to someday take care of herself?

For all of these reasons, Victoria's case stirred enormous academic interest. Here was a chance to prove or disprove theories about how the brain works, how a child acquires language, and how significantly humans are affected by their environment. The calls started flooding in, including one from an anthropologist in California who had studied wolves in the wild and thought he would have special insight into Victoria.

But those in charge of Victoria's future—Richard LaVallo, a feisty Austin lawyer who had been appointed by the court to represent Victoria while she remained in the state's custody, and Kristene Blackstone, one of the most respected CPS supervisors in Austin—were not going to allow Victoria to endure the kind of glaring public attention that Victor, the wild boy of Aveyron, was forced to endure in 1800. LaVallo told me that when he first met Victoria, "she reminded me of the children I used to see on the back wards of state schools—children you thought were lost forever." But what also struck him was her gentleness, especially since it seemed so incongruous with her past. "Most kids who come from her kind of background or who cannot communicate are extremely frustrated, often violent," he said. "And yet Victoria remained so strangely sweet. It was a mystery."

LaVallo did allow one professor to work with Victoria. Dena Granof, from the University of Texas' department of communication sciences and disorders, specialized in teaching communication skills to children with traumatic disabilities. Still, she was amazed when she met Victoria. "She was one of the most severe cases of social and educational deprivation I have seen," Granof told me. Victoria spent hours rocking back and forth, flapping her arms and hands, tapping one finger against another—behaviors known as "stimming" (for self-stimulation) that to Granof represented a way for Victoria to cope with a world she didn't understand. What was most baffling was that Victoria never responded when people addressed her. She didn't even look their way. Although she clearly was capable of producing a range of sounds, she limited herself to her squeaking and an occasional "bah." Victoria had been exposed to language: There had to have been at least some conversation in the house between Edna and Diana, and Diana had said that she occasionally put Victoria in front of the television to watch Barney and Friends and that Edna had read her Bible stories. "But Victoria's language skills were like an infant's, an infant who had not learned the most basic prelinguistic communication such as eye contact," said Granof. "No one had any way of knowing what she was thinking."

It was decided that Victoria, who was still living in the shelter in Central Austin, should try to attend Rosedale, the Austin public school devoted to students with special needs. One staffer went out and bought her a dress and pair of pink Keds as her first school outfit. But for at least a week she would not budge when staffers tried to get her onto a school bus. She liked staying in one room; the sight of doorways made her backpedal. Finally, she was lured outside by someone holding a can of Coca-Cola, which Victoria had learned to savor since coming to the shelter.

At Rosedale, she was put in a class with the most severely disabled: children with cerebral palsy, children who suffered from grand mal seizures, children who had to be fed through tubes. "Victoria required constant, minute-by-minute supervision," said her teacher, Dedra Standish. She was constantly trying to take off her clothes. She'd squat and urinate on the floor whenever she felt like it. If she was given a crayon or a ball or a doll, she'd try to put it into her mouth. "I'd show her things over and over and over—like how to sit on a potty—hoping she'd get the message," said Standish.

Weeks passed. The Rosedale teachers noticed Victoria was starting to look around the classroom. They saw her trade looks with an autistic child. These were tiny improvements, perhaps, but nothing that suggested any real intelligence. Then early one morning at the Children's Shelter, the director, Susan Wills, came into Victoria's room to check on her. As Victoria squatted in a corner, rocking back and forth, Wills set down her coffee cup to pick up the stuffed animals that had fallen from Victoria's bed. Then she walked over to a window. "I was looking out the window, feeling so deeply sad, wondering what would happen to Victoria," Wills recalled. "We were just getting nothing from her."

She heard a noise. She turned around, and there was Victoria, shuffling toward her. She was carrying Wills's coffee cup, which she then set on the windowsill beside her.

"I stared at the coffee, then I stared at Victoria," Wills said, her eyes brimming with tears at the memory. "I thought, 'There's a light on in this little girl. There's a light on.'"

If there was a light on, it barely flickered. By November 1997 LaVallo and Blackstone's determination to keep Victoria out of a state hospital had resulted in her moving in with foster parents—a kindly, good-humored middle-aged couple who had three grown children and who now lived alone on a five-acre plot of land just outside Austin, with horses and dogs. (To protect Victoria's privacy, they asked not to be identified.) For more than four months, the foster mother slept on a mattress next to Victoria's bed. "She didn't cry like other children. She didn't make any sound at all," the foster mother told me. "So I would wake up through the night and check on her. That's the only way I could find out if she was sick or in pain."The foster couple—"Rare, wonderful people, with reservoirs of patience," said attorney LaVallo—decided to talk to her all day long about everything they were doing with her. In a videotape made of Victoria in the spring of 1998, she sat at a counter while her foster mother fixed soup and fired off a barrage of sentences. "Doesn't this soup smell good? I bet you're hungry. Do you want to drink? Why don't we get your milk glass right here?" Like a child who was blind, deaf, and dumb, Victoria stared blankly into the distance, occasionally making a high-pitched squeal or a singsongy moan.

There were moments when she did come alive—at least a little. On a trip with her foster parents to Wal-Mart, she stared intently at the shopping carts. When the foster couple took her to eat at a restaurant, she turned and picked up food from a family sitting at the next table. She once became very attentive when she heard a tape of Barney's "I love you, you love me" song. Was she having a memory of her days watching television in the Blanco house? Her foster mother found it curious that the only book Victoria did not try to stick into her mouth was the Bible that had belonged to her grandmother. When the foster mother handed Victoria the Bible, her hands ran up and down the cover.

One of her foster father's biggest goals was to teach Victoria to laugh. When he tickled her along her ribs, she'd make a guttural groan. He, in turn, would laugh in an exaggerated fashion so that she'd know what a laugh sounded like. One day he put on a silly-looking hat and made a funny face to try to get her to laugh, and she murmured something. He believed she said, "Ugly."

"What did you just say, Victoria?" he asked. But within seconds, she had withdrawn.

And so it went for the next year. Most days Victoria was so out of contact with her surroundings that she didn't seem to realize when someone was right beside her. Occasionally, however, she gave signals that she knew far more than anyone could have predicted. In the special-education classroom at the school Victoria began attending near her foster parents' home, a teacher gasped when she saw Victoria work a simple wooden puzzle designed for toddlers. On another occasion, the teacher noticed Victoria looking at herself in the full-length mirror. She leaned forward, then leaned backward, poking at parts of her body. Was it possible that this child was finally developing a rudimentary self-awareness?

At meetings with school officials, LaVallo and Professor Granof proposed that Victoria start spending most of her school days with nondisabled students her own age. It seemed like an impractical idea: What good would it do for Victoria, who didn't speak, to sit in an English class? "What was easy to forget was that Victoria had never seen the way normal girls her own age talked and behaved," Granof told me. "She wasn't going to learn what normal was by staying in a classroom filled with other special-needs children." Granof also knew there was a chance for her to develop her capabilities. One child Granof had worked with, a severely spastic girl with cerebral palsy who had limited eye and head movement and no ability to speak, was put in the back of a regular classroom in a tiny school district in Texas that had no special-education program. For two years the girl sat there, her head down, staring at whatever book the teacher stuck in front of her. She was ignored for most of the day. Yet, on her own, the girl taught herself to read.

Officials at Victoria's school district (they also requested anonymity to guarantee Victoria's privacy) readily agreed to LaVallo and Granof's proposal that she be put into the mainstream. A teacher's assistant was assigned to spend most of the day with her, to go wherever she went. A group of nondisabled students, known at the school as Victoria's Circle of Friends, volunteered to help her get off the school bus, walk with her to her locker, take her to her classroom, and sit with her at lunch.

Sometimes the situations were comically touching. In one videotape, Victoria stood in the front of the room to hold a poster another student had made as part of his book report. The poster kept slipping out of her hands and crashing to the floor while she stared idly at the ceiling. During the school's Christmas pageant, Victoria was led onstage by the teacher's assistant to be with the rest of the students. During "Jingle Bells," she excitedly jumped up and down and flapped her hands.

But the mainstreaming was unquestionably having an effect. In the cafeteria line she began to point at food she wanted. Although the toilet training was still a problem, she developed a kind of sign language—tugging at her pants—to let her Circle of Friends know she needed to be led to the bathroom. Granof saw one videotape in which Victoria was sitting with some girls at the cafeteria. They had torn up her sandwich for her, but Victoria would not eat. She kept tapping the unopened lunch box of a girl beside her. After watching the videotape, Granof was so excited that she called LaVallo, exclaiming, "Victoria was communicating. She was trying to tell her friend that she was not going to start eating until she got out her sandwich too!"

In the summer of 1999, nearly two years after she was found, Granof and LaVallo pushed for Victoria to attend a YMCA day camp for nondisabled children rather than a camp that had been created for special-needs children. Granof had recruited two of her undergraduate students to be with Victoria each day: Marisa Leon and Caryn Bross, both speech pathology majors. "We didn't have any idea what we were going to do," Leon later said. "We realized from the moment we met Victoria that we were in way over our heads." The first day at camp, Victoria, overwhelmed by her new environment, wouldn't leave the front entrance of the YMCA. She had to be dragged through the doorway. At the end of that day, camp officials said the experiment with Victoria was not going to work and that she could not return. They relented after LaVallo forcefully reminded them of their obligation to provide services to the disabled.

Bross and Leon had been instructed by Granof not to act like therapists with Victoria. So they decided to become her playmates, taking her fishing and swimming, asking her to play board games with them, shooting basketballs with her, telling her stories, letting her sit on their laps. "We didn't know what else to do except play with her," said Bross. "But all along, we had this spooky feeling that there was all this intelligence inside Victoria that she just wasn't letting out. There were times Marisa and I would be joking or talking, and we'd turn to Victoria and say, 'We know you know what we're saying,' and she'd start giggling."

Then, toward the end of camp, Bross saw something that would confirm her theory about Victoria. She and Victoria were in the bathroom. Bross took a big drink of water and swished it around in her mouth. Victoria looked at her and said, "Water." Bross was so shocked that she spit out the water, which landed all over Victoria's face.

"You have to understand that the reason I wanted to work with handicapped children was because of the play, The Miracle Worker," Bross told me. "I had seen the play and the movie countless times, and every time during the scene when Anne Sullivan puts Helen Keller's hands under the water, I'd start to cry. And here was the same scene happening right before my eyes."

A few days later, Marisa Leon went swimming with Victoria. Uncharacteristically pushy, Victoria tried to make her way to the deep end. As Leon held her back, Victoria said, "I wan go."

Victoria had just said her first sentence.

How could this be explained? How could a girl who had stayed mute her entire life—a girl whose communication age had been diagnosed at twelve months by one doctor—suddenly start saying words to two college students? Had a part of Victoria's brain been at work all this time, assimilating information, learning the English language? "I think what brought her out at camp was that she knew, for the first time in her life, that she was being treated just like other children," Leon theorized. "I know there are people who think Victoria has got to be retarded or autistic. I know there are teachers who think Victoria never really said those things to us, that maybe Caryn and I got excited and exaggerated everything. No, I promise you. That's what she said."By the start of this year, no one could deny that Victoria was slowly, tentatively emerging into a larger world. Not only was she beginning to say more words—her foster parents heard her say "get" as she pushed away dogs that were trying to lick her, and she said "more" when she wanted more food—but she was also acknowledging more of what was being said to her. When her foster mother would tell her to take her dirty laundry to the laundry room, to make up her bed, or to put her seat belt on in the car, Victoria often complied. This past summer, she returned to YMCA camp. The UT students were also there. Marisa Leon spent most of the time with her, then Caryn Bross arrived to replace her for a couple of weeks. The day Bross arrived, she told Victoria that Leon was taking a vacation. Victoria stood up, looked around, and said, "Where she?" It was, by all accounts, her second sentence.

In spite of this remarkable progress, the truth was that Victoria was still a profoundly disabled child, perhaps irreversibly damaged from her years of epic neglect. Most of her vocalizing remained a moaning, squeaking, incomprehensible gibberish. She continued to lapse into helpless arm-flapping or body-rocking stimming. She needed constant supervision. Yet, as Kristene Blackstone, the CPS supervisor, pointed out, "You cannot help but wonder what kind of child Victoria would be if there had been earlier intervention in her life. We'll never know. That's what is so haunting. We might never know what kind of potential she had."

It's sometimes hard to tell who has been more changed by the discovery of Victoria—Victoria herself or those who have gotten to know her. Many of the people who have worked with her cannot talk about her without choking up. "It's not just her past that deeply affects you," LaVallo said. "It's that Victoria remains so full of goodwill."

In September I was allowed to meet her at LaVallo's house. She was then twelve years old. Her brown hair was thick and worn shoulder-length. She weighed 116 pounds, almost 50 pounds less than when she was found. She was accompanied by her foster parents and, to my surprise, her mother, Diana. (Edna, who had suffered a stroke, almost never leaves the North Austin apartment.) Although Diana has lost her custodial rights, CPS supervisors, recognizing that she still deeply loved the girl, decided there was no reason to keep the two from seeing each other during supervised visits. According to caseworkers, Diana had become more cheerful since being liberated from the Blanco Street house. She also had been working with a parenting coach to learn to care for Victoria. As I watched, she brushed Victoria's hair and helped guide her into the kitchen with the foster mother to fix Victoria a snack.

Victoria was in a joyful mood, babbling, lying on the couch and kicking her legs, swinging her head back and forth. She was, however, still locked in her own private domain. She never looked my way once—I could have been invisible—and she made no attempt to communicate in any way with anyone else. I wondered out loud what would happen to Victoria once she turned eighteen and the state no longer controlled her future. If she remains in the condition she is in today, would she end up in a state hospital for the rest of her life? Or was it possible that she might live with her mother again? LaVallo told me that she would never go to a state hospital and would probably not live with her mother. Her name is on a waiting list to get into a community-based placement for persons with disabilities. "But we'll have to keep our fingers crossed," he said, "and keep on working for her."

After a couple of hours with her, I still had seen no sign that she knew where she was or who she was with. It was heartbreaking. I stood up and told her good-bye.

"Tell the man good-bye, Victoria," said her foster mother, guiding her toward me.

Victoria stared over my shoulder, and I thought she still didn't see me. Then, for an instant, her eyes locked on mine, and she waved at me.

"Do you see it now?" said her foster father. "The light inside her? I know she wants to say something to us. I know it."

But Victoria was already turning away, her arms flapping again, her head shaking back and forth.

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