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For the love of a child

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Before that Dani had been confined 24 hours a day in a tiny, filthy, dark room. Alone and naked but for her diaper, she slept on a cockroach-infested, soiled, bare mattress. She had never enjoyed the sunlight. Her body was covered with thousands of bug bites. Lice infested her head of dirty hair.

When Bernie and Diane first laid eyes on Dani, she didn’t smile, laugh or talk. She made noises such as guttural moans, a high-pitched wail, piercing shrieks and “woo-woo-woos.”

Dani, who turns 13 in September, still cannot talk or care for herself, but she has come a long way from her horrid beginnings. The Lierows now share their tale in a new book, Dani’s Story: A Journey From Neglect to Love.

The trip has been a marathon filled with roadblocks, but this couple, who have five children of their own and are also foster parents, would not be deterred until their adoption of Dani was complete. 

Along the way, their story won a Pulitzer Prize for the St. Petersburg Times and was broadcast to the nation on the “Oprah” show.

The couple originally saw Dani in a photograph at the Heart Gallery of Tampa Bay. When they made inquiries, a woman told them, “Trust me. Raising this child will be a lifelong struggle. You just don’t want her.”

Diane later Googled the words “feral child” and found entries including “wild,” “undomesticated” and “isolated from human contact.” Then she and Bernie watched the Jodie Foster movie “Nell,” about a “wild child” in the North Carolina backwoods. The two would not be moved. They wanted to know more about the girl in the photo.

This child had fallen through the cracks. In fact, a Florida Department of Children and Family employee, upon investigating Dani’s situation, stated it was the worst case she had ever seen.

The doctor who tested Dani reported to the Lierows that her development on a physical level, her gross and fine motor skill and speech and socialization were delayed to the 4-to-6-month level, most of it the result of environmental neglect. The doctor also said that Dani would never learn to talk.

When they met her for the first time, Dani walked on her tip toes, wore a diaper and was fed from a bottle. During the course of that encounter, Bernie and Dani played with a Slinky toy, and Diane changed her diaper. The bonding process had begun.

When she was taken to their home for a weekend visit, Dani discovered a bedroom decorated with the color pink, a Hello Kitty theme, two dozen stuffed animals and lots of children’s picture books.

Since 2008, the Lierows, their son, William, and Dani have lived in Wilson County. The couple began work on their book 2½ years ago with Nashville writer Kay West.

“I went out to the place where they were living, sort of like a blind date, and we talked for a long time. I met Dani and William, and we all liked each other, so we decided to go from there,” West said.

“The second time, I brought cookies, and she came to know me as ‘the cookie lady.’ It’s just impossible to know because she can’t speak. She did let me give her a little hug and they said that was unusual. I feel like Dani and I had a rapport right from the start. . . . I babysat a couple of times at the house, and one time picked her up and we spent a day together,” said the writer, who also discovered what an impressive big brother Dani inherited in William.

“William is a saint. He is about a year older than her. He is so incredibly patient with her and loving with her, and she just adores him. He drives her around in an all-terrain vehicle, and we called that ‘Driving Miss Dani.’”

West, who has children ages 21 and 19, has written two previous books, and has a new book, 50 Things Every Young Lady Should Know, being released in October.

She says of the book about Dani, “This is Bernie and Diane’s story, however, it is told through Diane’s perspective. That is how the publisher wanted it, in the first person and in the mother’s voice.

“They did not seek this, to do a book. They did not seek the newspaper story. That whole thing, they thought it would help the cause of adoption. They foster other children. It is a passion of theirs to care for children that are in the system,” West said of the couple whose oldest four children are grown. 

“Diane and Bernie felt very spiritually called to do this,” she says about their adoption of Dani. “They’re religious and regular church-goers. Their faith is very important to them. They work hard. Their life is pretty simple . . . it’s work and it’s home and it’s family.”

As for the book, which has also been picked up by a United Kingdom publisher, Bernie says they wrote it, because, “It’s a plus. We’re not only helping Dani with all this stuff, it helps the other kids too: disabled kids, foster kids and adopted kids. That’s mostly why we did this. Having an awareness there are kids out there like this.”

Perhaps one of the most touching passages in Dani’s Story occurs while the family is shopping at the Lebanon Lowe’s store. Diane relates in the book that Dani was sitting in the cart and very quietly began saying something like: “I pity, I pity, I pity.”

Bernie asked her, “What are you saying? Tell us again.” Eventually they understood as Dani got out the words “I pretty.” 

“Watching her learn and watching her be happy. Things that bring a smile to her face” has been the best part of this process for Diane. As for the most difficult, she answers, “Probably her tantrums and her stubbornness. If she doesn’t want to do something, she doesn’t want to do something.”

Today, Dani weighs 101 pounds and stands 5-foot-2. She loves eating French fries, ice cream, spaghetti, Jell-O, Chinese food, vegetables and fruit. As for television, she enjoys watching cartoons such as “The Backyardigans,” “Dora the Explorer,” “Blues Clues” and “WonderPets.”

While she likes playing on her swing set and jumping on a trampoline, her favorite activity is swimming.

“She goes horseback riding once a week at STARRS. She likes that, but not as much as swimming. We just got a load of sand delivered yesterday. We’re getting an above-ground pool. She’ll swim in it, but she likes the deep water. She likes swimming under water more than on top of the water,” said Diane, a stay-at-home mom who raises more than 80 goats and 100 chickens (she sells the eggs).(Dani also has a miniature horse that she has outgrown. The horse’s name is Hope.)

Bernie still plays with the Slinky toy with Dani. “I’ll play with her for about 20 minutes before I put her to bed. Today I came home, and we sat on the couch and all of sudden she sat in my lap, and it was like,

‘So where have you been all day?’ She and I are very close. . . . She never had a dad,” said the gifted carpenter who today fills the void as her father.

The odds remain that Dani will never learn to converse in the spoken language, but she has increased her communication skills since becoming part of the Lierow family.

“She’s doing better. She uses a little bit more sign language. She still doesn’t talk,” Diane said. “At school they make her use signs, and she’s finally given in, using words for food, drink and more. She signs for those consistently.

“She’s too old for elementary school at Tuckers Crossroad, even though she’s only 12,” Diane said. “They don’t have a middle-school special-needs program there. They told us we could take her to Southside or Lebanon High, and I don’t think she’s ready for Lebanon High.”

“She is going to Southside because they have what they call a life-skills class,” Bernie said. “What they will do there is teach her basic skills that you and I would take for granted. She has to learn. It has to be taught. What they’re going to teach her: how to sort things, how to put things in a box; maybe even how to get dressed. She knows how to undress herself but she can’t dress herself.”

The dreams that Bernie has for his youngest child?

“With all the kids I have, it’s the stars. If Dani can pretty much take care of herself in a group home—if she can do that I would be really happy—and she is slowly getting there. She doesn’t talk, but if I ask her a question she will answer the question, yeah or nah. That’s a big deal,” Bernie said.

Writer West, who has been one of only two people to babysit Dani, concluded, “Everybody that meets Dani falls in love with her. She is just a sweet child. She loves her family. To go from being in a bug-infested, urine-soaked room with no lights to where she is now in a rambling farmhouse in the rolling hills with a great family and a bunch of pets. I sort of wonder what is going on in her head. It must be like she is in heaven.”

Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at kbtag2@gmail.com.

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