Dani watched backstage with her big brother while Oprah interviewed their parents.
Her parents worried that the TV crews would upset her. So although Oprah will air an entire show today about Dani and other feral children, the 10-year-old who was found near Plant City never stepped onto that Chicago stage. The show will air at 4 p.m. on WFLA-Ch. 8.
"The Girl in the Window" appeared in the St. Petersburg Times in August, with photos by Melissa Lyttle. The story began when a girl's pale face appeared in a broken window, startling neighbors who had no idea the child existed. For most of her life, Danielle had been kept in a filthy room the size of a closet.
She was 7 when detectives found her curled on a moldy mattress, naked except for a swollen diaper. Her skeletal body was raw with roach bites. She couldn't speak, feed herself or make eye contact. Doctors and judges said it was the worst case of child neglect they had seen. Social workers feared she would end up in a nursing home.
But a family in Fort Myers saw her face on a poster of foster children and fell in love. Bernie and Diane Lierow adopted her and called her Dani. They had no idea what had happened to her, or whether their love could make up for all the years she had lost.
The story had the largest audience of any story ever published on the St. Petersburg Times’ Web site. More than a million people read it online. And 1,200 e-mailed from around the world.
The coverage raised thousands of dollars in unsolicited contributions for Dani's long-term care. And because of the story, the State Attorney's Office is considering seeking changes in laws about prosecuting parents charged with neglect. In the weeks after the story ran, calls from people wanting to adopt foster children in the Tampa Bay area increased 33 percent. And local child abuse hotlines reported an unprecedented spike in calls.
Readers wrote that the story made them suspect their neighbors and hug their kids.
"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."
Dani and her family moved in the summer to Tennessee. Dani has a new puppy, and her mom got her some goats, hoping she can learn to help care for other creatures, and begin to learn to live outside her head.
Just after Oprah taped the episode, Dani celebrated her first anniversary of being adopted. She has surpassed everyone's expectations. She laughs. She lets her new parents hug her and even climbs into their laps. She is learning to fill her own glass with water. She has started sleeping through the night. Her nightmares seem to have subsided.
No one knows what Dani might be capable of months or years from now. They don't know how much of her developmental capabilities were shut off in that dark closet, or how much might be saved.
Lane DeGregory can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)893-8825.