REPORT BY DAILY MAIL UK
Speaking to the Dallas Morning News in a series of powerful interviews, the now-20-year-old shared how she has struggled to gain control of her life after suffering six years of sexual, emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her mother and stepfather, Barbara and Kenneth Atkinson.
‘I’m hoping one day I’ll be able to have a normal life,’ Lauren, who now lives in Canton, Texas with her adoptive mother, told writer Scott Farwell. ‘Of course, my life hasn’t ever been normal.’
Lauren was nearly two when the courts ordered her adoptive parents, Bill and Sabrina Kavanaugh, to hand her back to her biological mother, Barbara Atkinson.
Atkinson, then Barbara Calhoun, had given up Lauren at birth but eight months later the Kavanaughs received a call that she had changed her mind and wanted the little girl back.
During the adoption process, their lawyer had mistakenly never filed the paperwork to terminate Atkinson’s parental rights and they lost on the technicality, sending the little girl back to her mother.
In the following six years, Lauren endured sickening abuse at the hands of the couple, who starved, confined and allegedly raped her and handed her over to other men to sexually abuse.
When she was found in 2001, she weighed just 25.6 pounds, the size of an average two-year-old. She was potbellied with malnutrition and doctors had to use a feeding method devised for Holocaust victims.
Investigators said she also suffered years of sexual abuse – leaving her tiny body so badly damaged that she needed a series of reconstructive surgeries – but because it would be too traumatic for the then-eight-year-old to testify, they were never convicted of rape.
They did however both receive life sentences for felony injury to a child and will be eligible for parole in 2031, when Lauren is 38.
‘I never loved Lauren. I never wanted her,’ Barbara Atkinson told investigators after she was charged. ‘When my other kids hurt, I hurt. When Lauren hurt, I felt nothing.’
Atkinson had a total of six children – with four different men – but it was only Lauren who was singled out for the abuse. Kenneth later told police she had simply explained the girl was ‘bad’.
For months before Lauren was found, she was locked in a closet that measured four feet wide and nine feet deep while she heard her siblings play and run around outside.
When she was found, investigators noted that her legs were red raw from sitting in her urine and feces, and she had traces of feces in her mouth. She had been so deprived of nutrition that her bloated stomach lacked the enzymes it needed to digest food.
But as well as physical impairments, she was deprived of stimulation that resulted in brain atrophy, and she missed lessons on emotional development, such as how to trust and give affection.
She did not know how to sit in a chair or use the bathroom. When she was taken outside during her hospital stay, she screamed when she stepped on the grass because she had never felt it before.
But authorities found her large vocabulary curious – and later found out that she had learned how to speak from the country music her mother constantly played to drown out her cries.
Lauren’s filthy living conditions were found when her stepfather invited a neighbor inside to show her the little girl locked inside the closet. Authorities suggested this was an act of revenge after his wife started meeting men on the internet and taking off for days at a time.
Fingers have since been pointed in numerous directions as people search for who to blame.
Relatives said they bought Atkinson’s explanation that Lauren had an eating disorder as she would gorge when she came to their houses. When they visited Atkinson’s home, she always said the little girl was at a friend’s house.
The couple’s other children said they knew the abuse was going on and would sometime sneak her food but that they, too, were terrified of their mother and scared of raising the alarm.
Child Protective Services had also been called to the house when neighbors saw the children eating food from the trash – but the parents made Lauren say she was fine and claimed to be neighbors.
Kim Higgins, a CPS caseworker, told the Morning News: ‘There was never a time we went out and saw the kids and saw the home and talked to them and failed to do something. The failure was really on everyone else in these kids’ lives.’
Despite the extreme trauma, police officers, firefighters and doctors all commented on Lauren’s unwavering positive spirit after she was found.
But still, there was struggles; she ate her meals on a tiny picnic table in the hallway of the hospital because she was worried someone would take her food.
She eventually returned to the Kavanaughs’ home, where again, they were met with the unexpected.
She would sleep in her closet and gorge on food in the night, so they took off her closet doors and left out cookies and pink lemonade on the kitchen table.
She cried when she saw a family put suitcases into a trunk because she was often locked in the trunk as her former family drove around to collect food, while she lay starving in the back.
Sadly, escaping the Atkinsons was not the end of the abuse; in 2005, case workers encouraged her adoptive mother to relax her tight rein on her daughter and Lauren went to stay with Sabrina Kavanaugh’s niece, her husband and their sons.
The following morning, the husband took her outside and sexually assaulted her. He was later jailed for the attack.
She has since endured fits of rage, fights at school, self-harming suicide attempts, and seizures when her body sought to block out the painful memories, particularly of the rapes.
But she said a fight at school was a turning point because she was put in an alternative school and residential therapy, where she met other abuse survivors and learned she was not alone.
‘There were a lot of tough years in there,’ Sabrina Kavanaugh, whose husband Bill died in 2003, told the Morning News. ‘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 graduated from high school this year and has enrolled at Trinity Valley Community College in Athens. She is no longer taking medication for depression or bipolar disorder.
But there are still lingering signs of the abuse; she stashes food in her room, can’t bear to hear country music and has a black sheet over her closet, rather than a door.
‘When I first started seeing her, she was not social, she was chronically depressed, she was suicidal, she felt worthless,’ her therapist Lindsay Jones said.
‘Today, she’s ready to embrace her past. She’s not embarrassed about it or ashamed about it anymore. She’s like, “This happened to me, but I’m still here. I survived and I’m thriving”.’