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.

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

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