I am the Florida reporter who followed a feral child -- from her rescue in a horrific house through adoption and 10 years of recovery. Ask me anything!
I'm Lane DeGregory, an enterprise reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. In 2009, my story "The Girl in the Window" won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing -- and drew more than 1.5 million readers from around the world. I followed Dani as she learned to walk, use the toilet and eat solid food -- and kept up with her new family for the last decade. Recently I visited Dani in her new home.
Edit: Thank you all for tuning in and asking such great questions! I'm signing off for the night, but keep posting questions and I'll check back in the morning.
You can also hit me up on twitter @lanedegregory or email: [email protected]
And I'm starting a new podcast next Wednesday about reporting and storytelling, which will be aired on our website: tampabay.com ... so send questions or comments for that to: [email protected]
Thanks for reading!
I think if the child protection workers had taken Dani away when they first visited her, when she was 2, then again when she was 3, or even if they had at least revisited her to do a welfare check, or insisted she be put in some sort of day care or pre-school, or visit a doctor, they would have had four extra years to help repair / heal her and make up for the severe neglect and malnutrition which have damaged her for life. I think, once Dani was discovered, that so many folks did so much to try to help her, I'm not sure how much more they could have done ... For that first year she was with the Lierows, she got every kind of therapy imaginable. But once they moved from Florida to Tennessee, and lost the umbrella of protection the Florida adoption folks provided, Dani's new parents stopped taking her to outside therapies and left her instruction entirely to the public school. So I don't know if more individualized speech / occupational / physical therapy would have helped from age 10 til 19 ... but it might have.
When I was in my senior year of high school, my English teacher had us read your article, and it absolutely shocked me. I actually decided I wanted to go into psychology and help people after I read it.
My question for you is, how did all this effect you? Was there any sort of mental anguish? Or anger towards her parents?
What a wonderful outcome! That makes me so happy that the story encouraged you to go into a field to help so many others! ... Yes, this story affected me more than any I have written in 30 years. The anger and anguish of how any mother could do this to her own child ... countered by the high hopes her incredibly generous adoptive parents provided ... the story created such a dichotomy of emotions and reactions. It made me feel more guilty for not being able to go to every one of my own children's activities. And so grateful to the Lierows for giving Dani a second chance. And it made me totally incredulous to find out that other child investigators had been to check on Dani years earlier ... when she still might have been saved. The hardest part was trying to be objective when we went to meet the birth mother. She seemed so horrible, to have done that to her child, and we worried what she would do to two reporters showing up on her doorstep ...
Well don't leave us hanging like that, what happened when you met the birthmother?
It took us awhile to work up the courage to knock on her door. But when we did, she opened up and asked what we wanted. I told her we were working on a story about her daughter and she started crying, "My daughter? Have you seen my daughter?" Then she invited us in and offered us coffee, cigarettes or kittens ... and thanked us for wanting to hear her side of the story. She also gave me a trash bag full of court and medical records that I never would've been able to get on my own because of privacy reasons!
But when we went to see her this time, for this follow-up story, she threatened to call police on us for trespassing!
She never even finished the probation or community service she was assigned to do as meager punishment ... the police detective said she lied about leaving the state to her parole officer to get it terminated. But she still lives about a block from that awful house where she kept Dani.
How did you think about writing a series of stories about a subject who can't really communicate about herself? I think you did a fantastic job with the story, and everything I've read of yours, but even terms like a feral child, while certainly accurate, seem to speak to that issue being a tricky one to navigate.
When I set out to write Dani's story, I truly didn't know that she couldn't talk. It wasn't until that first day when I met her in person that I realized how lost ... or locked-in ... she was. So I had to shift my reporting perspective entirely and write the story through the perspective of her rescuers and new family rather than her own eyes. You're right: I always want to share the story from the main character's viewpoint. But that just wasn't possible for this one. I so wish I could have navigated enough to know what was going on in her mind ...
My parents neighbors adopted a couple of former "crib babies" from former soviet states when I was a kid. You could call them "feral" I suppose, they both seemed to make immense progress in the first few years, then regressed terribly right around puberty (back in diapers, stopped all speaking, etc). Is this common in these situations?
That's so interesting ... and I don't know if it's common, but it seems so similar to Dani's situation ... puberty was really when she seemed to backslide ... I wonder what the correlation is there? How old were the children when they got adopted? From what I've heard, those Russian orphans were virtually feral ... so sad ... do you know there are volunteers in the neo-natal intensive care units of hospitals who just hold the babies so they'll get human touch from the time they're born? Those early connections seem to be so important!
sting ... and I don't know if it's common, but it seems so similar to Dani's situation ... puberty was really when she seemed to backslide ... I wonder what the correlation is there? How old were the children when they got adopted? From what I've heard, those Russian orphans were virtually feral ... so sad ... do you know there are volunteers in th
I believe they were around 5 and 7 (I could be wrong). The neighbors did say they had never been held. Their in their 20's now, I see the boy riding around town on his tricycle with his father fairly frequently, haven't seen the daughter in years. She used to occasionally follow the cat into our house through the cat door, wouldn't speak to or even look at me, had to pick up the cat and walk next door so she'd follow me.
What wonderful people to give those children a home, and a second chance!
This was an amazing story and I particularly enjoyed the way you wrote about the relationship between Dani and her father. I really admire you as a journalist and was wondering if you could talk about how you became a feature writer and what this story taught you about reporting difficult enterprise stories?
Thank you! I was a news reporter for 15 years, working mostly in a small bureau on the Outer Banks of N.C., writing two or three stories a day for the Virginian-Pilot newspaper, covering cops and courts and zoning boards and hurricanes. In 1995, the paper's writing coach, Ron Speer, became my editor and started asking me to give him my notes before I started writing. That was terrifying. But it turned me from a reporter / quote stringer together to a writer. I knew the story. I didn't need my notes except to fill in the facts ... In 1998, the Pilot started a narrative writing team, led by a young editor named Maria Carrillo, and she picked me as one of four reporters to write narrative features. She sent us to conferences, gave us books and stories to read, and met with us weekly to talk about craft and ideas and edit each other. So that was the turning point from news reporter to feature writer. I came to the Tampa Bay Times (then the St. Petersburg Times) in 2000 to be a features writer and got the honor of working for fabulous editor Mike Wilson, who really helped me hone my craft and reach for harder stories. I got to work with him for 13 years! And now Maria Carrillo is my editor again! So I've been incredibly lucky to have worked for wonderful editors who let me talk about stories, characters, setting and theme ... and pushed me outside of my comfort zone to cover things I really didn't know anything about. This was the first long-form story I had worked on for more than a month. I spent 6 months reporting and writing, and had 24 other bylines during that time. So I learned you can do a difficult project while still doing dailies and weekenders .... and that it helps so much to break these big stories into chapters.
thank you for your reply! It's very heartening to hear one can make the transition from news to features. I will continue to follow your byline - wishing you all the best
And you can try narrative techniques in news stories too ... even just a scene you witness, or a dialog instead of direct quote, or some sensory detail of smell or touch elevates news stories and helps transport readers there. Or try just a small narrative feature. My first attempts were mostly under 1,000 words ... I know that I could never write narratives if I hadn't covered news, on deadline, for all those years ...
I remember that story. So tragic and such an interesting study in development. Before you started the investigation, how much did you know about child development and brain development and the affects of lack of attachment, bonding or other trauma and how did this investigation affect you on a personal level?
I had never heard of a feral child before I started this story. When the foster care workers called Dani that, I only thought of Mowgli from the Jungle Book. I didn't know that was possible in 2007 central Florida, in a neighborhood where folks could see into each other's windows ... so the reporting and research were what really informed me about early childhood development and brain pathways that could shut down if they weren't used ... the psychologist said that even if Dani had been left with a TV on, or even a radio, she might have been able to develop some speech patterns that weren't possible since she seemed to be raised almost entirely in silence. ... On a personal level, this story was very difficult. My youngest son is the same age as Dani, and I was travelling weekends to visit Dani's new family, who lived three hours away. So I had all this mommy guilt about missing dance recitals and birthday parties and Little League games while I was reporting this story, then I had all this disgust at the birth mother for neglecting her child almost to death, then I had all this admiration / I could never do that ... for the Lierows, who took her in. So there were all these consuming, conflicting emotions which made it hard to be objective, especially about the birth mother.
Thank you for answering and thank you for sharing her story.
Thanks for the great question, and reading about Dani. Like so many other folks, I had so hoped that they had rescued her in time to make up for the awful neglect ...
Hello Lane. My question, has anyone from the birth family or their neighbors ever indicate why Dani was neglected while her siblings were not? What ever became if her siblings?
Her siblings were much older, teenagers and young 20s, when she was taken. It later came out in court records that the oldest brother had urged his mom to take Dani to the doctor and put her in school. I think the mom had her husband to help raise the boys, and after he died she got pregnant on a one-night stand but didn't know the dad and didn't realize she was pregnant and was just in denial that she even had a daughter. Neighbors said she was seldom home, always playing Bingo at the Moose Lodge with a new boyfriend, so she either left Dani entirely alone in that awful room, or left her with her older brothers, who just seem to have ignored her. The youngest brother answered the door when we knocked in September, said he remembered it was Dani's birthday, but when I asked if he thought about her, or what had happened to her, he shut the door.
I was not aware of this story. I just read what's posted on the website. This might be one of the most disturbing, yet uplifting things I've ever read.
This policy of attempting to keep a child with its parent(s), has this ever been revisited in this state? Is it like this everywhere? My parents were foster parents growing up and they cared for some kids in terrible situations. Nothing ever like this, but certainly prone to massive mood swings due to fetal alcohol syndrome and thing like this. In almost all cases, the children were returned to their mothers, except one where the child was adopted and another where she passed the age of 18 while living with my parents and continued to live with them after getting a job and paying rent.
Yes, great question. When the child investigators first visited Dani, when she was 3, the state of Florida's policy was to do everything to keep the child with the birth parent. So they offered services to Dani's birth mom, including free child care, but she refused. And they didn't go back to check on Dani until a year later, when someone else called. Same scenario. I can't help but obsessing over what her life would've been like if they'd rescued her back then ... after the story came out, the policy was changed so that police officers have to accompany child investigators on cases where abuse is alleged. That way, if a truly criminal act has occurred, they can rescue the child and make an arrest right away instead of dragging out a long case plan to keep the child in possible peril.
That's excellent news. I just sent your story to my mother. I'm sure she'll find it interesting and heart wrenching. Great job, by the way. You told this story the way it needed to be told. Still can't believe the birth mother agreed to an interview.
I can't either! That's always so surprising to me. The folks I least think will agree to talk are often most grateful I asked! She kept thanking me for at least wanting to know her side of the story ... and she gave me a ton of court records and medical records that I wouldn't have been able to get because of privacy concerns. Just handed me this huge Hefty bag of documents and said, "You might want these. I don't know what's in there. But I don't need it back." A journalist's dream come true!
So what was your approach to asking her for an interview?
We just knocked on the door, told her we were writing about Dani, and wanted to talk to her to find out what had happened that led up to that day the investigators came ... It was a great lesson in just going for it, making sure everyone you're writing about at least gets a chance to have their voice heard.
What were your most enjoyable "breakthrough" moment and saddest moment with the child?
The breakthrough actually came more with the parents, when they finally agreed to let us do the story, then when they invited us to spend the weekend in their home. The hardest part for me, even after 30 years of reporting, is convincing the subjects to let you in and trust you ... Dani never even really realized we were around during that first story. Which was great for the photographer, Melissa Lyttle, but didn't help me. All I could do was observe her. There was no getting inside her head ... The saddest moment was probably revisiting her this past September, for her 19th birthday, and realizing not only had she not been healed, but she actually seemed to have regressed. She appeared to find moments of happiness or maybe even joy, though, so that was a bit hopeful. Thanks for asking!
In what way had she regressed?
She had been potty trained by the time she was 9 ... but now at 19 she's back in diapers ... she was using a speaking board before to push buttons to say words ... but she broke it and now doesn't try.
What are your feelings regarding Dani being so heavily drugged at all times?
Yeah, not sure what to say about that ... it was hard to tell how much of her compliance was maturity / losing that urge to create conflict, vs. being medicated to the point of not wanting to lash out. I mean, if the meds help keep her calm, that's great. But it seems hard to know what's helping or hurting because you can't get her perspective. When we showed the USF psychologist video of Dani now, she nodded sadly and said, "That's the old Thorazine shuffle ... what everyone in mental institutes used to look like."
Thank you so much for doing this AMA. This is the first I have heard of this story, and I spent much of my time reading through tears. Your sensitive, even handed, and in depth treatment of this subject, and all involved, shows me that your Pulitzer was/is well deserved. Bernie is nothing less than amazing, and an example to us all of what unconditional love really means.
Thank you for taking the time to read the story ... it was my honor to get to follow Dani's journey, and to reconnect all these years later.
How is she doing?
Here's a link to the most recent story that just came out. I visited her for her 19th birthday: http://www.tampabay.com/projects/girl-in-the-window/neglect-feral-child-ten-years-later/ Short answer: She didn't recover much over the last few years, in fact she seemed to have regressed a bit. But she's much more content, not running away or lashing out. She let me hold her hand. And she actually laughed, which made me so happy to know there's a bit of joy in her now.
Her story is excruciating, but seeing the photos of her actually smiling are amazing. Thank you for telling her story.
It was my honor to get to share her story. I've been a newspaper writer for 30 years and I've never gotten to go back after a decade and revisit a subject ... I'm so grateful her dad kept up with me and let me back in!
Hi Lane. I greatly admire your work. As a young reporter trying to navigate my way through a narrative project, I've found myself overwhelmed and overloaded with notes and information. What's your organization process? You mentioned only using your notes to fill in facts. How do you do that? I tend to use my notes as a crutch and it becomes time consuming when I sit down to write. What does your writing process look like? Do you wait until you have all the material? Has it changed over the years? Sorry for all the questions. And if you have any tips on finding some of these great stories, please share! how do you balance life and work?
Yes, my writing process has totally changed over the years. And it's quite different if I'm writing a news story, or on deadline, or only have one notebook of notes as opposed to the nine legal pads I had for Dani. So, since you asked: 1. I finish 90 percent of my reporting before I ever think about writing. Then I duck into a quiet cave, no social media, no phone, and read through all of my notes ... taking notes on the notes, so each big legal pad gets reduced to one page of notes, more like an index of what's in that notebook. 2. I make a list of characters, scenes and themes ... then a timeline / chronology of events. 3. I try to figure out what background / context I need to weave into the narrative, and which scenes I can turn into cinematic experiences for the readers. 4. I put away all my notes, in my car or kitchen, and take a shower, or take the dogs for a walk, or do laundry ... something to engage my body but free my mind. And I make myself think: What would it be like to be that person? Where would my story start and end? What's a good cliff hanger / question to end the first section? 5. I write the lead long-hand on a notebook that I keep in my bathroom, bedroom, glove box, kitchen sink ... I never sit in front of a blank computer screen without having the lead written already. 6. I make myself write in sections ... don't get up until you finish that Diet Coke ... forcing myself to keep typing until I hit that goal / prize ... I write without notes. I need to know where I'm going to end, even if I don't know where I'm going between the lead and the last line ... 7. After the story is done, I go back through my notes, and notepads, and fill in any details, numbers, things I have forgotten. And I make whatever other calls / research inquiries I need to fill in whatever holes I might have found. 8. I print out the story and take it outside somewhere, or into another room, and read it on paper with a pen. 9. I go back and make corrections, edits in the file. 10. I print it out again and ask someone to read it to me out loud. If no one is around, I read it out loud to my dogs, or record it on my phone so I can listen for rhythm, word choice, sentence structure, syntax, etc.
I write so much faster when I don't use my notes as an excuse to procrastinate. And I find my own voice so much more easily when I'm not just stringing together someone else's quotes.
My work and life are so intertwined, I don't know if that constitutes balance, but there isn't a day I'm entirely off work, not thinking about my stories, nor a day that my husband and kids don't creep into my work thoughts ...
As for ideas, see if this hand-out helps ... it has tips and a link to each tip that shows a story I found using that tip ...
Finding Story Ideas: Tips your editor won't tell you
Lane DeGregory, Tampa Bay Times
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing, 2009
1) Talk to strangers
Be nosey, sit by the old woman on the swing, everyone has a story
Pier singer Elmer Wright: “Still shining”
2) Play hookie
Roam aimlessly, let someone else drive, ride the bus, look around
Cashier Michael Turbe: “A Father’s Day 41 years in the making”
3) Read the walls
Check bulletin boards, buy bad papers, scour the classifieds
Husband Mark Tanner: “Where did she go?”
4) Sit the bench
Be a fly on the wall, eavesdrop at beauty parlors, eat lunch alone
Anthony and Ryan Moran: “A brother’s bond”
5) Make freaky friends
Opposites attract, befriend photographers, use your friends and kids
Carnival guru Ward Hall: “The last sideshow”
6) Get a life
Eat dirt at the drag strip, join bowling leagues, go to festivals
Holocaust survivor Helga Harris: “Dear Friends”
7) Ignore important people
See who's in their shadows, stakeholders, other ways in
Miss St. Petersburg’s shopper Allan Brown: “The dresser”
8) Celebrate losers
Dreams don't always come true, ask about failures, lessons learned
Homeless artist Rick Lewis: “Homer’s odyssey”
9) Wonder: Who would ever?
Here's to you, Mr. golf ball picker-upper, Dirty Jobs, why you?
Public health nurse Flo Concklin: “They call her Mama V”
10) Hang out at bars (or coffee shops)
Check out different dives, try a martini, always come back to Cheers
Garbage truck driver Allen Smith: “Gone in a flash”
GETTING THE GOODS
11) Give everyone your phone number
Keep in touch, don't dis PR people, ask what else is going on
Russian pianists Alah Rozanovsky and Valentina Kits: “Music reunites”
12) Be late
Old news is good news, it's easier after the arrest, whatever happened to
Town Manager Steve Stanton: “His second self”
13) Work holidays
Relish rituals, find faith, new traditions, those who can't celebrate
Foster kid Shane Sheil: “All he wants is a mom and a dad”
14) Take stories no one else wants
Make people care, write for other sections, find a new way
High school senior Stacey Karavokiros: “Prom wish”
“A prom queen holds court”
15) Look for the bruise on the apple
Ask uncomfortable questions, celebrate conflict, sucks for them
Stunt man Evel Knievel: “A daredevil comes back to earth”
CRACKING THE NUTS
16) Lie on the floor, climb on the cabinets
See stories from a new angle, seek new perspectives
Drug court defendant Stacy Nicholson: “If I Die Young”
17) Listen to the quiet
The sound of silence, what doesn't happen, questions not answered
Hurricane hunk Jim Cantore: “The storm chaser”
18) Go along for the ride
Invite yourself over, ask for photo albums, vacuum the scene
Actress Michelle Dowdy: “Mama, I’m a big girl now”
19) Take small bites
See a sliver of the big picture, shadows in the news, I can’t imagine
Mom Cheryl Brown of Trayvon Martin’s neighborhood: “The Retreat”
20) Don’t be afraid of yourself
Share your life, open up, tell stories, take risks, you are a character
Tucker’s elephant flies out the window: “I brake for Bobo”
Don’t be a snob. Don’t think you’ve heard them all before.
Help your writers take chances, surprise your readers with new lenses.
And remember, sometimes the best stories are in your own backyard.
This is such a sad, sad story.
I wonder about the parents - did they have support financially, to be able to take on such a huge responsibility as parents in raising a child who had such special needs?
The parents took on much more than they knew ... they wound up literally losing their farm and their marriage ... when they were still in Florida, they had lots of people helping and resources being offered through the state adoption folks. But once they moved to Tennessee, they didn't seek out or find those same resources. Now that she's over 18, thank goodness, her care is being covered by Medicaid.
Amazing, gut-wrenching story. What were your thoughts when you found out Dani’s adoptive mother had given up on her after 3 years? While I can imagine the difficulty of raising a child like Dani, it broke my heart reading that Diane never even visits Dani in her home.
That broke my heart too ... no matter what happened with her and Bernie, I'd hoped she still thought of Dani as her daughter ... but to tell the truth, when we revisited Dani after only those first three years, it was clear that Diane had all but checked out and left most of Bernie's care up to her, so I can't say that I was surprised ... just disappointed ... I can't imagine the sacrifice it would take to care for a child like that, knowing they'd never age out and be able to live on their own ...
Wow. That was a tough read.
What was up with William? The first article briefly mentions that he's disabled and/or unable to care for himself. It said that was part of the reason they didn't want to adopt a child with such problems. But then it's not really mentioned again and he even helps with Dani. I also wonder why he hasn't seen his dad or sister in so long. That's really sad too. He seemed close to Daniel, like he was a pretty important part of her life.
No, there wasn't anything wrong with William. I'm not sure where that idea came from ... Dani's birth brother, who she seemed to be left with a lot, was in special ed. But William Lierow was fine, and a great help when she was young. It's my understanding that the divorce between Dani's adoptive parents was very acrimonious, lots of accusations being flung around, and William went to live with Diane, while Bernie kept Dani. Bernie said the last time he saw his son was at his high school graduation last year. I don't know why William removed himself so much from Dani, but I know she was a great source of angst and anguish for both parents, and part of the reason they ultimately split. But when they were young, you couldn't have asked for a better big brother than William. Dani was lucky to have him in her life.
Dani’s case has a striking resemblance to Genie. She initially made leaps in verbalisation but communication hut regressed after some trauma within her foster homes. Do you know what type of treatment Dani received and do you think it was enough with such a sensitive case?
Yes, I was fascinated by Genie's case, and so hopeful for Dani, who was found at 7 instead of 13 ... In the beginning, when Dani was still in Florida, the state provided wrap-around services which made sure she got into physical, occupational, and horseback riding therapy, as well as private speech therapy sessions every day through her public school. But once the family moved to Tennessee, and lost the Florida adoptions specialists, they didn't seem to seek many services there for Dani beyond her special ed classes in public school. They lived in a very rural area, and therapists were an hour or more drive away, and they were so consumed trying to take care of Dan and the farm that they sort of let go of anything beyond school. so who knows how much farther she could have come, or could still come, with more intense interventions and instruction?
Really fantastic story. When you are hanging out with Dani, does it feel similar to interacting with an autistic person? (If you have experience with that of course) I ask because she seems to have a lot of the social features of a person with autism, but maybe less of the attraction to specific patterns and schedules that some autistic people have. There are some new innovative adult autistic communities being formed in California, and I wonder how dani might do in one of them
So I have interacted with a range of people with autism, and yes, Dani reminds me a lot of the most locked-in of those folks. She likes to spin and rock, twirl beads and socks, and repeat motions to self-soothe. And she seems to be able to completely disappear into herself, shutting out everything around her ... Being in the group home now seems to be a good alternative for her ... at least she has peers and 24/7 supervision and help ... I just worry that maybe she still has progress to make if she could be getting more or different kinds of therapy.
Thank you for your answer! If you are interested, I would suggest looking into Sweetwater Spectrum adult autistic community in Sonoma CA. This type of community is expensive, but slowly gaining traction as the future of living situations for adults with disabilities. Of course this particular place will likely never be an option for Dani, but for me it gives a lot of hope of how people with disabilities will be able to live once we as a country start to realize that they deserve better than the bare minimum existence. (I have lots of experience with sweetwater and adults with autism so I can speak to its benefits)
I wish there was a place like that where Medicaid would pay! Or that adopted kids with special needs could get free spots in places like that, like they do for foster kids who want to go to college.
Do you intend on writing a follow up in another 10 years?
I hope so ... I'm definitely going to keep in touch with Bernie and see how he and Dani are doing ... and I'd love to reconnect with William and Diane one day! My youngest son is the same age as Dani so I think about his milestones, and where she could be if someone had found her sooner ... or her birth mother had only put a TV in her room!
Does Diane Lierow still visit Dani?
No, she hasn't seen her since the divorce a couple of years ago ... and she wouldn't talk to me about Dani for this story, citing legal concerns ... I told her I didn't care about the divorce, I just wanted to talk about Dani, but she and William both refused. Bernie has been Dani's only visitor since she moved into the group home in January :(
There is no doubt your story and your follow up made an impact on society. Everyone that reads it get the feels.
Do you think reporting tragedies like this, including the follow up which wasn't a happy ending for anyone as far as I can tell, make an appreciable difference in society? Does it raise awareness and make essentially good people better members for being more vigilant outside their own bubble of the world, or is it just limited to being better within their own bubble? (reporting more hinky things and potentially saving more children from fates maybe not as dire as Dani's, but still awful, on up to fates worse than hers, versus just making more of an effort with our own children.)
Is the latter good enough to make the world at large a better place in your opinion?
I think any time we can get readers to think, or feel, things that they hadn't considered, that's a breakthrough. So much news coverage happens after awful things that if we can at least raise awareness, or make neighbors look out for each other more, or remind law enforcement / child investigators to be more vigilant about follow-up responses, then it's worth it to share those stories. If the article incites change in laws or the way investigations are handled, even better. So many people responded to the story saying they were hugging their own children more tightly, being more grateful for rowdy bedtimes or spilled milk ... that's a worthy outcome in and of itself. My former editor, Mike Wilson, used to caution reporters against "emotional voyeurism," writing about tragedy just for the sake of showing tragedy. He believed that there needs to be a higher purpose for exposing such pain ... in Dani's case, sharing her story resulted in at least a dozen children getting adopted, so I think that's the best result I've ever had from any story!
Has she responded to music or art (drawing, finger painting ect) in any meaningful way? Is her dexterity advanced enough to the point where she could manipulate a brush/pencil or attempt to put together Legos or stack blocks?
No, unfortunately she can't really even hold a pencil. A fork was about as good as it got ... So she never really played with legos or blocks or dressed a doll or even did peg puzzles ... I'm not sure about the music component ... I never heard any while I was with her either 10 years ago or now ... but she sure liked the metallic voice of that toddler helicopter!
what are 3-5 most important specific things you've learned from this experience?
aside from this, what's your happiest experience/memory that very few ppl have?
I learned that you can learn a lot by just observing someone ... that some of the best reporting can be done without asking a single question ... I learned that sometimes the most horrific scenes don't have to be told to get your point across ... you can show Dani being potty trained without showing her smearing poop across the dog and TV ... I learned that it's worth keeping up with your subjects because if you're wondering about how they're doing, years later, some readers might be wondering too! ... as far as my happiest experience / memory, I'd have to say that personally it was taking my two boys on "monster hunts" along the beach when they were small, to Australia when they were in middle school, and watching them perform in high school plays, dance recitals and marching band ... winning the Pulitzer Prize (especially after NOT being a finalist that year) was certainly the best professional memory I have.
Hi Lane, big fan of your work! I'm curious about your thoughts on the future of feature/longform journalism at daily newspapers. What changes have you noticed in how dailies treat it since starting your career? Do you think it will survive shrinking budgets/staffs?
Thank you! So I've been fortunate to be at The Tampa Bay Times for 17 years now, and though we've gone from having a daily features section to a weekly to a monthly magazine to, now, only running special sections when a big story needs one, I have never felt like I was being constrained by time or space. Editors have, thankfully, given me the room to report these long form stories when they find one they think is worthy (though I am still jumping in on cop and hurricane stories, not being taken out of the news loop entirely.) I think other papers have pulled back on more traditional features. But the long-form narratives seem to have a healthy audience and now that there are other platforms to share stories: Longform, Digg, Reddit, Nieman narrative etc., these stories can get a lot more attention and wider audience. We just haven't figure out a way to monetize that yet ... I am encouraged by the beautiful web presentation these stories are getting, the interactive components we can now build into our on-line reports, and the rise of podcasts ... which I think might be the savior of long-form story telling. Not every reporter, or newsroom, wants to do meaty narratives. Which is fine. But I know there is still an appetite for these sorts of stories because of all the feedback we get when we publish them!
What made you decide to write part of Dani's 10-year story from a first person perspective?
I love this question. Short answer: The editor-in-chief made me do it. I hate putting myself into stories, and seldom do it. But he felt like I needed to represent an "everyman" for the readers, show her through my eyes, which hadn't seen her in years. So that whole section was added in after the first draft, under pressure. At one point during the visit, Dani's adopted dad asked me to take her to the bathroom. Which I did. But it was weird having that scene, not knowing whether I should write it, not understanding why he didn't just take her himself ... but what are you going to say? No. I won't help her in the women's room? But I decided to downplay that interaction ... He wanted more of me than I wrote. But I didn't want to be in there at all! ... What do you think? Was it jarring to switch to first-person? Or did it somehow help elevate the interaction / observation for the reader?
I think it was a bit surprising knowing your usual style, but it worked. it was an interesting way to add in the back story, and there wasn't too much of you! It also adds the context of how you reported the story. while following her journey for 10 years, it in some ways became your journey, too. It made me feel like I was looking at Dani's story as an outside party, from your perspective. Thanks for sharing the part of the story that didn't make it to print. What a hard story to watch unfold. I hope Dani has a happy life in the group home. Bernie seems to be such a devoted dad. Appreciate the work you do. Do you think you will follow Dani again in the future?
I'm totally going to keep up with Bernie and hear how Dani is doing ... and I'd love to be able to go back and see her again sometime ... I really want to talk to William and Diane too, which I wasn't able to do for this story :(
Where you ever able to get answers from the birth parents as to why they abused and neglected Dani to this extent? Reading about it, I just can't fathom doing that to anyone for any reason, least of all my daughter...
I read Dani progressed a bit in terms of communication. Have you ever been able to get her thoughts on anything that's been going in her life? Or has she never been able to communicate that much to people since being rescued?
Dani's birth mother swore she didn't know who the dad was. She said she'd had a one-night stand and didn't realize she was pregnant until she was in labor. She told the cops she was "doing the best I can" but blamed the filthy house and insects and snakes on a bad landlord and two teenage sons "who wouldn't help." I think she was in denial that she even had a child. She seemed to have left Dani at home alone with her older brother, who had special needs of his own. .... And no, Dani has never been able to talk or even say a recognizable word. For a brief while, she was pushing buttons on a machine that could say "dog" or "water." But she broke that and hasn't tried another since. So no one knows anything that's going on in her head. And I couldn't tell much by observing her. Except that she doesn't lash out or scream any more, and smiles and laughs sometimes, which is something ...
Is it possible that Dani has some sort of autism on top of being feral? Did the early responders find her normal or active?
Amazing work! Thank you for sharing this story.
Dani's apgar scores were normal at birth, and all the brain scans, neurological exams and tests showed that she didn't have medical proof of any autism, cerebral palsy, mental retardation that could be seen through normal tests ... but her birth brother was in special ed, and her birth mother had an extremely low IQ, so it's possible that she suffered from some learning disabilities beyond the neglect ... being ignored, and malnourished, would only have exacerbated whatever underlying conditions she might have had ... the early responders found her completely limp and unresponsive, unable to make eye contact, walk or eat solid foods.
jesus fucking christ.
this is the type of shit that tells me god left the building many many years ago.
How does a story like this weigh on your mind/heart?
Sort of like it did on yours ... It is just unbelievable that a mother could do that to her own child, and not go to jail for even a day ... and even more unbelievable that strangers would take a girl like that into their home and give her a real family, despite all the work and anguish it meant for them ...
Just wanted to say that I think your writing is amazing, Holly Zachariah from the Columbus Dispatch came in to one of my classes and shared the lede's to some of your stories and I just had goosebumps. As an aspiring journalist, I genuinely appreciate your work!
Just wanted to ask, what advice do you have for students who want to do special project stories like this in their careers?
Hey, thanks to Holly! That's great to hear! ... As for advice, I think you have to start small, write a little narrative around a city council meeting, find a scene to illuminate a larger news story in 1,000 words or less, practice writing about senses: taste and smell, especially. Then find a project you can do while you're still covering news. You don't want to check out for six months, put all your eggs in that basket, and have it not be the most monumental thing you've ever accomplished. But if you're still writing dailies and covering news now and then, you can better chip away a project, and convince the editors to give you time to report once you've done some work on your own and know more what the story is ... also, find a great photographer to partner with. All my best projects have been a true collaboration with a photographer who is going out and doing the reporting and watching the scenes unfold with me, not after the fact. And it helps immeasurably to have someone to talk over the story with while you're reporting, before you start writing.
Some other advice, which you didn't ask for, but since I wrote this to a college journalism student not long ago ... she asked me what advice my 50-year-old self would give to 20-year-old me, and what mistakes I had made ... so here goes:
I wish I hadn't thought I had to be so smart. When I was starting out, I was afraid the politician I was profiling would realize I didn't understand property taxes; that the hockey coach I had to interview would out me for not knowing a hat trick from a helmet; that the commercial fisherman would think me unworthy of sharing his story because I had never been on a trawler. So I tried to study as much as I could beforehand and fake my way through difficult interviews, nodding and taking notes. Then I'd sit down to write and realize I really had no idea how to explain what was going on to my readers. That wasn't fair to them -- or the subjects.
As I've gotten older, I've realized, it's okay to not know -- it can even be endearing. When you ask people to explain, tell them you're far from an expert, offer that you have to be able to break this down so all the audience can understand, subjects appreciate that. They want to help you get what they're doing, see what's important to them. They don't want you to BS them, or get it wrong. So they won't see you as dumb but rather as smart for asking so many questions, for admitting your fallibility, for wanting to get it right.
Instead of trying to stay out of the story, I wish I had shared myself more. I thought it was important for a reporter to remain on the sidelines, sort of sheltered from her subjects, and in the early years I think I used my notebook as a shield. I was asking people all these questions, sometimes really personal questions, but I never let them know that I was only 25, or was scared of sharks, or that my car had broken down on the way to the interview and that's why I was so flustered and late. I thought I should be sort of teflon-like, untouchable. But that only shut me down, and kept people at a distance.
Being pregnant, I think, helped me move into a new phase of reporting. There was no hiding that from my sources, and it gave them something to talk about that was personal, that I couldn't keep inside, that helped them connect to me as a person -- not just a reporter. Plus, I couldn't hide that belly behind a notepad :)
Now I tell everyone I talk to that I'm a writer -- not a reporter, that sounds scary -- that I'm 46 years old, married to my college sweetie, who is a drummer, that I have two teenage boys and two crazy dogs and a turtle the size of a dinner plate. That lets them think of me as a wife, a mom, an animal lover -- not just someone who wants to dive in and ask them to open up without sharing herself. Dogs, kids and cars will get anyone talking. And it's important to talk to people, not just interview them. I also let them lead and guide the story now: Where do you want to start? What do you want people to know? (I used to think I had to be in charge ...)
I wish I hadn't thought I knew what the story was about before I reported it. When I was starting out, my editor often told me what the story was about before I ever went out to report it -- so I tried to tailor my questions and observations and even the writing to what I thought the editor wanted. But the story you set out to get isn't always the story that's really there, or the best way to tell it, or even a true reflection of whatever reality you're trying to capture.
I wish editors had given me more leeway to say, okay, here's an idea, now go out there then come back and tell me what you think the story is. I wish I had had more confidence to say, no, really, this is what I saw and think ... or maybe there isn't even really a story there at all. Being willing to go with your gut, to let the story morph and evolve, to see where it fits into the context of people's lives, makes the experience so much richer, the story so much better. And closer to the truth.
I wish I had pitched more stories I wanted to do, instead of tackling assignments I didn't want to do.
I wish I had done more stories I wanted to do in my own time, instead of making excuses like the editors won't give me time.
I wish I had taken more risks with my writing early on, let myself experiment with voice and dialog, different structures and chronology, trusted myself more to just tell a story and not feel like my job was to share information.
I wish I had read more short stories and fewer newspaper articles.
I wish I had attached myself to more senior writers I admired, asked more questions, gotten more advice.
I wish I had done fewer phoners and gotten sunburned on more boats.
I wish I had known that it was okay to make mistakes, that no matter how brilliant -- or bad -- your story is, another paper will come out tomorrow, so it's okay to try something that might not work. But it's not okay not to try. Or to bore yourself by always doing what's safe. Or to think your readers will care if you don't.
What is her favorite food now?
She eats everything! Whatever is put in front of her. So fast you don't even know how she's already inhaled it. She seemed to love chicken fingers from Dairy Queen, and Bernie said she really lights up for spaghetti. She ate her birthday cupcake in a single, messy, delightful bite!
This is so interesting! Thank you! You are an amazing person following truly inspirational people!
It was so strange for me that, after 10 years of never being hungry, Dani still had such issues with hoarding and inhaling food ... like after those first seven years of starving, she could never let herself believe that there would actually be plenty to eat ...
Dani's story stresses how vital the early development of a child is. Did covering this story change the way you interact with your own children?
My boys were 9 and 10 when I worked on this story, so the younger one is the same age as Dani. I remember them telling me to stop hugging on them so much whenever I'd get back from a weekend away reporting with her ... So yes, I think I tried to insert myself into their worlds even more after spending time with a child who had been so left alone ... and I know that the detective who found Dani and rescued her quit his job and took early retirement so he'd have more time to spend with his young son, because he said he realized after interacting with her how vitally important those early years of interaction are! ... my sons are off at college now, becoming who they were meant to be on their own, and that's what had me wondering about Dani, how she's doing now that she's aged out of high school special ed and at the time in life when most kids start to launch into their own independent lives ...
Are aliens real ? , you said anything lol
I wish I could interview one and let you know!
Is it possible to find her a feral companion?
Edit: Why am I being downvoted? Wouldn't this be potentially beneficial?
None of the many, many cases I've read about feral children have ever resulted in them being able to connect with anyone ... which is so sad.
She has companions at the group home, at least ....
What else do you think can be done when feral children are discovered?
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