A Feral Child's Journey to Recovery
Dani was 7 years old when Florida police finally came to investigate allegations of child abuse at her house. Weighing just 46 pounds, she had spent most of her young life curled up alone in her room, and was never allowed outdoors—even to go to school or see a doctor. The neglect was so severe, one expert says, that she would have been better off if she had been raised by animals.
Her story—including her adoption by a remarkable couple and her astonishing steps towards recovery—was featured recently on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," after her case was first exposed in a poignant multimedia story in the St. Petersburg Times. Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D., was the featured guest on the program. He has evaluated Dani and is consulting on her treatment—and has also seen about 150 similar cases.
Chaos, abuse and neglect
When police found her in a small, Plant City, Florida rental house, Dani was naked except for a heavy diaper. The stench was so strong that the officers expected to find a dead body.
Instead, they discovered a feral child: A girl so profoundly neglected that she had never learned to eat solid food, speak, or even understand language. Dani wasn't toilet-trained, and although she could walk, her gait was crab-like and uneven: She skittered on her toes.
Seemingly oblivious to the filth around her, Dani's mentally impaired mother told the officers, "I'm doing the best I can."
Although such extreme stories are rare, child neglect can be as harmful as abuse, and is sadly very common. More than two-thirds of the 905,000 confirmed cases of child maltreatment reported to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System in 2006 involved neglect.
A feral child
"Feral" isn't a diagnosis, of course. But the term usually refers to a child raised by animals, like Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome who was said to have been reared by a she-wolf. In another case Perry consulted on, a Russian girl was "raised" by a pack of stray dogs until she was 8. She ran around on all fours and barked and imitated a whole range of other canine behaviors.
More recently, the term has been expanded to include children whose human care and contact was extremely limited.
Perry says low intelligence is common among parents who severely neglect their kids. "Most of the neglect cases are because there's an impaired, overwhelmed caregiver," he says. The most famous such case is that of "Genie"—a heartbreaking story of a Californian child who for 12 years was rarely exposed to speech and was restrained on a child potty. Researchers attempted to teach her language, but sadly discovered that without early exposure, some human capacities seem to be unable to be developed.
"Honestly, children raised by animals can be more healthy than children who are profoundly neglected like this," says Perry, "They actually had some form of socialization and interaction. It wasn't human, but it was touch, it was communication, there's reciprocity to it, so the few cases there are of true feral children, their outcome is better."
Although there were cats and dogs in her mother's house, Dani did not appear to have had that much contact with them.
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