"The Girl in the Window," the story of a horrifically neglected child who was rescued by the authorities and adopted by a family in Fort Myers, has drawn an outpouring of calls, e-mails and offers of help from readers here and around the world.
The story of Danielle Lierow, known as the feral child, was published on the Times Web site, tampabay.com, on Aug. 1, and in print last Sunday. The Web presentation has received nearly a half-million page views, a record for the site, with almost 1,000 readers leaving comments. More than 500 have sent e-mails.
"I was shocked by Dani's story, uplifted by her adoption by the Lierows," Rachel Silver wrote. "Even though I'm an agnostic, I kept muttering, 'God BLESS them!' "
The story, by writer Lane DeGregory and photographer Melissa Lyttle, raised questions about language and laws and love. It made people suspect their neighbors and hug their kids and, most of all, want to help.
"You gave us something to think about," reader Susanne Whelan wrote. "We all must keep our eyes open and report things that are not right."
"The Girl in the Window" was linked on a blog for moms in South Africa, on a forum for gamers playing Battlefield 2, on a site for fans of the TV show Firefly. It was featured on fark, on facebook, on digg and on softballfans.com.
The Heart Gallery of Tampa Bay, which found an adoptive family for Danielle, is receiving 2,000 hits a day on its Web site, up from the usual 500, said Carolyn Eastman of the Children's Board of Hillsborough County. The Heart Gallery has also received 100 e-mails and 80 phone calls from people commenting on the story or inquiring about adopting a child.
In Tampa, a company called Grafx Design has created a site for Danielle, www.danisstory.org. Built with the cooperation of the Heart Gallery and Danielle's adoptive parents, it allows readers to make donations through PayPal to support the girl's ongoing care and therapy.
• • •
"The Girl in the Window" begins in 2005, when a fragile, haunted child was discovered in a closet-sized room in a filthy house in Plant City, covered with roach bites and wearing only a dripping diaper, unable to speak or make eye contact.
Doctors concluded that years of neglect had interrupted the girl's development, leaving little hope that she will ever talk or live independently.
The story traced Danielle's journey from the detective who took her away, through her stay at the hospital, her travels through foster homes, into the loving home of Bernie and Diane Lierow of Fort Myers. And it introduced readers to Danielle's birth mother, Michelle Crockett, who was later prosecuted for neglect.
"That something like this could happen in 21st century America is astonishing," Michael Jefferson wrote to the Times from Warrenton, Va.
Many calls have gone directly to child welfare workers.
"We are hearing from human service providers who are getting calls from citizens who want to report suspected child abuse, citizens who want to advocate for stricter consequences for convicted child abusers, local counselors who are having child abuse victims who are now adults come forward for help," wrote Eastman of the Children's Board.
Most people who wrote to the Times wanted to help Dani. The family's former bank in Fort Myers set up a fund for donations (see box for address).
"I would like to have some money out of our retirement go directly to Danielle's parents to help with whatever is necessary," Cynthia Jennings wrote from Tampa. "I too was adopted by wonderful parents."
Other media clamored to meet Dani. Inside Edition called the detective; a writer for a British women's magazine wants to see her; book publishers, movie makers, everyone wants to share her story.
Someone is writing a song for her. Someone is sending her presents.
• • •
"It's been real wild," said Bernie Lierow, Dani's new dad who adopted her last year. The Children's Board is forwarding messages to him and his wife. "We've been getting calls from all sorts of people."
Dani is 9 now, out of diapers and able to feed herself. She still walks on her tiptoes and she can't brush her teeth. But she can hold the dog's leash. She'll sit still, watching cartoons, for half-hour stretches. She likes pink dresses and books about puppies and Beatles music. She understands almost everything. And she's starting to say a few words: "More" and "now."
In June, Dani moved with her new parents and 10-year-old brother, William, from their home in Fort Myers to another state where Bernie works in remodeling. (They asked that the place be kept private.)
They have a nice house on an acre, Bernie said, with a tree fort and swing set. William has his own room, filled with pirate posters and his pet parrot. Dani's trundle is still covered with Hello Kitty sheets, near the window in her new room.
She is taking speech therapy and will soon be starting horseback riding therapy. She's signed up for the Special Olympics, and next week, her folks are taking her to her first county fair.
"She's just doing real good," Bernie said. "Every day, it seems, there's something new."
Last week, she really startled him — and gave him hope. They were in the kitchen, and he was trying to brush her hair, which she hates. She pulled back from him and blurted something that sounded like, "I'm outta here!"
Bernie doesn't think it was an accident.
"As soon as she said it, she split."
Mike Wilson can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2924. Lane DeGregory contributed to this report and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8825.
See, hear more
Read "The Girl in the Window," and see a multimedia presentation about Dani's development, her caregivers and her birth mother, at magazine.tampabay.com.