Terribly neglected girl rescued — and embraced by loving new family

Policeman Mark Holste of Plant City, Florida, will never forgot the call he received in the middle of July, 2005. A man reported seeing a mysterious, pale little girl in the window of his neighbor's house.

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The dilapidated house had been lived in for the past three years, but there hadn't been any sign of a small child there — not in the yard or anywhere else.

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The neighbor was worried that it may be a case of child abuse, so the police set out to investigate.

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Officer Holste knocked on the door, but nothing could've prepared him for what he found inside the house: animal waste all over the floor, old chewed-up food, trash, spiderwebs, and reportedly thousands of cockroaches.

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Worst of all, recalled Holste, was the child he found inside. A tiny, skinny girl, half starved and naked except for a dirty diaper, was sitting surrounded by trash. It turned out that she was already six years old.

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"When I entered the room, her eyes widened. She opened her mouth and then crawled sideways, like a crab, to the corner, pulled her knees to her chin, and wrapped her arms around them. Then she started making grunting noises," reported the shaken policeman.

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The little girl's name was Danielle. She was immediately taken to the hospital, and her mother to jail. Her speech and mannerisms were like a six-month-old's. She had received no care or attention from her mother, not to speak of affection and love.

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Danielle's mother spent a day in jail, and then eventually, in exchange for giving up custody of the girl, felony abuse charges were dropped and she was sentenced to two years of house arrest and 100 hours of community service.  

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Incredibly, Officer Holste was not the first to be aware of Danielle's situation, only the first to realize that her mother was utterly unfit and she was being abused. After a number of social workers over the years saw the conditions she was living in — but left her there, Holste was the one who rescued her.  

After several years in a home for severely-disabled children, Danielle, who had only ever known loneliness, neglect, and starvation, came to the attention of the right family. Diane and Bernie Lierows already had grown sons from previous marriages and one son together but they longed for a daughter. They had long been looking to adopt a girl but nothing had worked out yet. Then they saw a photograph of Danielle and something in her eyes spoke to them. They went to meet her and despite warnings from all their friends and family, they knew this girl who couldn't speak and was still in diapers was supposed to be a member of their family. 

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In 2007 the Lierows adopted Danielle, who was now almost nine. Life wasn't easy: the early years of neglect had critically impaired Danielle's development and scarred her terribly as well.

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"She has 7 or 8 fits everyday," said Bernie, at that time. "And she's very concerned with food. She often eats until she has to throw up."

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Their refrigerator is still locked with a chain. Otherwise, Danielle would empty the whole thing. After enduring years of being starved by her biological mother, one of her scars is naturally a terror of not being fed.

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But despite her unspeakably dismal early childhood, Danielle is doing better in her new home. The years have passed and she has made enormous progress.

She's now a teenager in high school, she's grown into a healthy size for her age, and has a close relationship particularly with her adoptive father. Mother figures are still difficult for her. But as Bernie explains, "She's a 2-year-old in the body of a 15-year-old girl."

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Everyday she makes small steps in the right direction. Her parents hope that one day she will be more independent and be able to engage with the world. "Having Dani in our lives is like a roller coaster. One that we don't want to get off of," they say.

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You can read a fantastic in-depth story about Danielle's adoption, progress, and even her biological mother's perspective (it's shocking) here. Having done an early story about the family, Oprah returned to check in on them. Watch their moving interview:

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