The Girl in the Window Revisited

Photography and Text by Melissa Lyttle

For the first seven years of her life, Dani never saw the sun, felt the wind or tasted solid food. She was kept in a closet in a house in Plant City, Fla., where she was cloistered in darkness, left in a dirty diaper and fed with only a bottle.

"She was a feral child," said Carolyn Eastman of the Heart Gallery of Tampa Bay, a children's advocacy organization in Tampa, Fla. "We'd never seen a case like that."

Dani was adopted by Bernie and Diane Lierow, a couple from Fort Myers, Fla., who have since moved to a 26-acre farm outside of Lebanon, Tenn. The St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times first published Dani's story, "The Girl in the Window," in August 2008. Now, three years later, writer Lane DeGregory and I revisited the Lierows to find out what's changed, and perhaps, more importantly, what hasn't.

While editing my photos each night in a Tennessee hotel room during my most recent visit in August 2011, I felt like I had seen some of these scenes before. After revisiting some of my photos of Dani and the Lierows from 2008, these diptych photo pairings emerged, offering us a unique look at then and now.

– Melissa Lyttle

Feb. 3, 2008 - Bernie Lierow loves giving his daughter, Dani, 9, kisses and hugs, even though she cannot give them back. The family wonders whether a little girl who'd been neglected can learn to love and allow herself be loved.
Aug. 12, 2011 - Three years later, Dani, now 12, has grown physically and emotionally. She's a foot taller and clearly responsive to her dad's affection. She hugs him back, kisses him and playfully bites his nose.

Feb. 3, 2008 - Dani mouths her Gloworm, a light-up toy that is often used to comfort babies at bedtime, as she is tucked into the lower portion of her trundle bed. Even after a year of being in the Lierow's house, Dani is still not ready to sleep in a normal bed.
Aug. 12, 2011 - Mesmerized by Blues Clues on TV, Dani sucks on the head of a Boohbah doll.

May 27, 2008 - Unable to communicate verbally, Dani learns to sign "more" while working one-on-one with speech-language pathologist Leslie Goldenberg at her elementary school in Fort Myers, Fla.
Aug. 12, 2011 - "Do you want more, Dani? Show us you want more." With some prompting from her parents, Dani signs "more" to show she's still hungry after eating all three of her soft tacos during dinner at Taco Bell.

Feb. 3, 2008 - In the blink of an eye, Dani can switch from happily building sand castles at the beach to running around and throwing a violent fit. Her moods are unpredictable and unexplainable. Bernie and Diane try to calm Dani down with a reassuring voice, letting her know that she is safe and everything is OK.
Aug. 13, 2011 - After a long, hot, exhausting day of walking around the fairgrounds, Bernie Lierow holds his daughter tight. He pulls Dani into him, reassuring her when he recognizes a tantrum coming on.

Apr. 9, 2008 - As a show of family togetherness and security, Diane Lierow, left, and her husband, Bernie, hold each of Dani's hands as they walk her to the school bus on a weekday morning.
Aug. 12, 2011 - After meeting the school bus at the front gate of their farm, Bernie Lierow helps his daughter, Dani, put on her backpack. This is part of their daily afternoon routine.

Feb. 3, 2008 - Garet White, an adoptions care manager for Camelot Community Care in Clearwater, Fla., fought for Dani's health and well being in court because she "didn't want her to slip through the cracks." White and Dani, have formed a bond during the past few years, and Dani now feels comfortable enough with White to be able to hug her and share moments like touching heads with her while watching a video. Although small, such gestures are huge for Dani, who has difficulty trusting people enough to get close to them.
Aug. 13, 2011 - An exhausted Diane Lierow leans on her daughter, Dani, touching heads with her after a full day of dealing with the goats at the county fair.

Mar. 2, 2008 - Bernie Lierow holds Dani's hand while they walk to the beach from their home in Fort Myers, Fla.
Aug. 12, 2011 - Bernie Lierow walks back to his 90-year-old farmhouse, holding hands with Dani who grew tired of helping out on the farm. "Sometimes I just let her zone out in front of cartoons because I think she needs that downtime from all the stimulation she gets now," he said.

Feb. 2, 2008 - For the first seven years of her life, Dani never saw the sun, felt the wind or tasted solid food.
Aug. 12, 2011 - Dani's most notable improvements include that she's starting to notice things around her and making eye contact with others.

Apr. 9, 2008 - Even though the school bus stops in front of her house, Dani's parents worry about her running into the road. To ensure Dani is safe, her parents have her sit in the back seat of a car, and they give her audio books and toys to keep her occupied before heading to school in the mornings.
Aug. 12, 2011 - Trees are reflected on the car window as Dani stares out of it.

Apr. 9, 2008 - After a struggle in the living room, Diane Lierow holds Dani while trying to gently brush her hair before school one morning. Dani's brother, Willie, 10, stands by to help should Dani start flailing or throwing a fit. Although Dani can't tell them what's wrong, the Lierows suspect Dani's fear of a hairbrush might be because she was abused with one.
Aug. 12, 2011 - Bernie Lierow helps Dani put on her shoes. Dani pulled her shoes off during a tantrum in the truck.

Feb. 3, 2008 - Never taught how to hold a fork or pick something up with her hands, Dani taught herself how to use her feet for most things. While laying on her bed, she flips through pages of a book with her toes
Aug. 12, 2011 - On her back on the living room floor, Dani bats at a ball that she bounced off of her feet.

More information on this story can be seen on the St. Petersburg Times' Web page dedicated to the Girl in the Window:

Melissa Lyttle has been a photojournalist for the St. Petersburg Times since 2005, where she is committed to documenting the lives of people in her community. Her work has been recognized by POYi, the Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar, NPPA’s Best of Photojournalism, the Southern Short Course, the Alexia Foundation, the Casey Medal and UNICEF. [Full Bio Here]

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8 Responses to “The Girl in the Window Revisited”

  1. Ms Lytle- I just saw for the first time the 2008 multimedia and it is one of the most powerful things I have seen. It displays the best and worst of humanity through the eyes of a beautiful child and it haunts me even thinking about it. As a freelance photographer myself, I want to thank you for showing what we do is not about celebrities walking down the street or the latest car wreck but documenting our existence and interactions with our fellow travelers on this planet. The bar of excellence has been raised!

  2. Carroll Seghers says:

    A powerful and emotionally moving essay that illustrates the case of an unfortunate girl who was fortunate enough to happen upon a social service employee who was willing to do more and to find foster parents who are clearly some of the most sensitive, patient, giving and loving adults in our time. Just knowing that there are still people like them and the school system that is helping to nurture her speech and cognitive abilities to the level needed to cope in modern life has made me feel better about our civilization’s chance to survive and thrive in the future. I hope that Dani will allow Ms.Lyttle to revisit her again in the future and share with us her continuing saga. I thank you for your journalistic passion, and for showing the truth of humanity’s resilience.

  3. Amy says:

    I’ve followed this story for years. It is so hauntingly beautiful and bittersweet.

    I’m glad Dani found her family.

    As a child who was neglected and subsequently abandoned, I didn’t find my “family” until the age of 22 in the form of angelic in laws. Although I was nothing like Dani, neglect and abandonment puts a very real fear of trust, showing affection or loving others into someone. It’s human nature to withdrawal into yourself because others just hurt you when you have experienced emotional trauma. A person can only take so much.

    Luckily for me, my “rehabilitation” came in the form of a wonderful husband, mother-in-law and father-in-law. They knew the damage from my childhood and over the past 13 years changed me from a bitter, spiteful, untrusting and unaffectionate person to a woman who will be the first to hug a friend or stranger who needs a hug and into a woman who trusts (although very particular about who). They never waivered in their fight to change me. Even on my worst days, they loved me through it. LOVE makes all the difference in the world.

    So very proud of Dani! Keep fighting… know that you are safe and loved. And even though I don’t know her, I would like to say “THANK YOU” to Bernie and Diane for giving her the chance that so many children will never get. We need more people like you!

  4. […] newly re-launched has a new look at photojournalist Melissa Lyttle’s “Girl in the Window” story. Three years […]

  5. Tony says:

    On behalf of the human race, thank you, Bernie and Diane.

  6. Vinod says:

    This is wonderful journalism. I have always appreciated follow up stories and this one truly is heart warming and eloquent. Even though I am not related to Dani or her parents in any way, I think I am indebted to Bernie & Diane for the love & support they have bestowed upon Dani and for accepting her as their own daughter.

    I think this story will definitely have an impact in my life for the better of me. I whole heartedly appreciate your efforts in doing this story. Keep up the good work.

  7. Candace says:

    This the first time I have heard about Dani sad to say I don’t get the channel to see the update as of this year on how Dani has progressed. I am so amazed on how well she has progressed in what I was able to see and read. Both of these parents are one in a million. I can understand why Dani has a problem getting close to her mom goes back to her real mother. Before we know it she will grow into a wonderful adult. She has the best teachers and all those who have taken the time to help her become who she will be one day.

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