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November 8, 2013

Beating the odds, forging a bright future

The Girl in the Closet

Athens — Lauren is alone in the dark.

She’s naked, sitting cross-legged in her own filth, eyes focused on a sliver of light.

It’s all she has, that light.

It glows from underneath a locked closet door, and Lauren’s discovered if she stares at it long enough, hard enough, her mind will open a portal to another place.

Doctors say that’s how she survived all the those years of starvation and solitude and sexual torture. They call it disassociation — the psyche’s ability to float away from the pain.

Lauren calls it her “escape hatch.”

It’s been a dozen years since Lauren was rescued from that wretched back room of a mobile home in Hutchins and almost immediately became known as “The girl in the closet.”

News of the case, and the arrest of her mother and stepfather, shocked and sickened the nation.

Little Lauren looked like a Holocaust survivor — bloated belly, protruding ribs, arms and legs as big around as quarters — when she arrived in the emergency room at Children’s Medical Center Dallas the night of June 11, 2001.

At 8-years-old, she weighed 25.6 pounds, the size of an average 2-year-old, and was damaged in ways doctors had never seen before.

A lot has happened in Lauren Kavanaugh’s life since then.

Earlier this year, she recently graduated from Eustace High School at the age of 20 and enrolled at in Trinity Valley Community College in Athens, a few miles from the rural home she shares in Canton with her adoptive mother, three dogs and a squawking parrot.

For the first time in years, Lauren’s off medication for depression and bipolar disorder. She’s exercising, talking more and seems to have new energy and optimism.

“There were a lot of tough years in there,” said Sabrina Kavanaugh, who, along with her husband, Bill, finalized the adoption of Lauren about a year after she was rescued.

“Sometimes I wasn’t sure we were going to make it. But all things considered, Lauren’s doing great. I think we may have turned a corner.”

Lauren’s successes are striking when one considers her early life was punctuated by so many abject failures.

By the courts, which took her from loving adoptive parents despite ample signs of danger. By her biological mother and stepfather, who then abused her in almost every way short of murder. By other family members, who held Lauren on their laps but say they never noticed she was scarred by cigarette burns, or starvation. By Child Protective Services investigators, who lost track of her even though every month, her mother got a state welfare check.

Lauren’s road back has been long and bumpy.

There have been years of psychotherapy and hundreds of doctor visits. Fits of rage, long nights of tears and terror, suicide attempts, fistfights, handfuls of mood-altering drugs.

None of those things are unusual for victims of severe child abuse, who often struggle with lifelong emotional problems.

But Lauren’s challenges were greater than most.

During six key years for of growth and development — from the age of 2 until 8 — she was deprived of nourishment and stimulation, which resulted in brain atrophy.

Equally important, she missed a million lessons learned by toddlers and young children: how to trust, cope with disappointment, give and receive affection.

Dr. Barbara Rila, a Dallas psychologist who specializes in the treatment of severely abused children, visited Lauren in the hospital days after she was rescued. It was the worst case she’d ever seen.

“If you would have asked me then, I would have told you there was very little future and hope for this youngster,” Rila said. “I’d never seen a child who was so very broken physically and emotionally.”

Lauren did not know how to sit in a chair, hold a pencil or recite her ABCs. She was not potty-trained, didn’t recognize the sun or know what grass felt like under her feet.

Rila knew what that meant. From birth to the age of 6, children’s brains triple in size, producing cells at a dizzying rate, establishing critical neural connections.

It would be impossible for Lauren to regain those lost years, or for her adoptive parents to re-create the psychological experiences that teach complex emotions such as empathy and sympathy, along with morals and values.

Studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others suggested Lauren faced a bleak future: — antisocial behavior, crime, drug and alcohol abuse, disease and early death.

Lauren does have deficits, but so far, Rila says, she has beaten the long odds against her — not by making up for lost time, but by understanding her weaknesses and figuring out ways to compensate for them.

“The fact that we’re talking about her graduating from high school, that she has reflective thoughts, that she has a relationship with her adopted mother, that she can talk about the things that happened in her past,” Rila said, “these things are amazing and remarkable.”

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