Lauren Kavanaugh was just three-years-old when the abuse began. She was confined to live in a dark, lice-infested and urine-stained closet and was referred to as a “little secret” by her mother, Barbara Atkinson, and her stepfather, Kenneth Atkinson. The closet was 4 foot by 9 foot and Lauren would only be allowed to come out of the closet when the sadistic couple wanted to abuse her.
Lauren was denied food, physically beaten and sexually abused by her mother and stepfather over the course of five years. She was systematically beaten with a paddle as well as blunt and sharp objects and was burned with cigarettes.1
As she lay in the darkness, she could hear her six siblings laughing and playing outside. When the other members of the family would go out of town on trips, Lauren would be locked in the closet. 2 As Lauren sat in the dark closet, she often glared at the sliver of light coming in through the gap at the bottom of the door. In fact, if she stared at it long enough, her mind would open a portal to another place. According to Lauren, this was her “escape hatch” but according to experts, it was disassociation.3
The abuse was uncovered when Kenneth told a neighbour, Rita Rivers, about Lauren while Barbara was away from the home. Rita went inside her own home and told her husband, Joe, who called police. “It just got to the point where he couldn’t take it anymore. It’s unbelievable, I had no idea it was going on,” recollected Rita.4
When officers arrived at the home, Lauren was eating spaghetti. “She was eating as mast as she could,” recollected Hutchins Police Officer, Gary McClain. While Lauren was eight-years-old at this point, she looked like a toddler. She weighed just 25 pounds, was filthy and had matted hair that was infested with lice. “When I looked in her eyes, it looked like she’d been in a dungeon for days and days. I thought, ‘My God, how can anybody do that?’” said Officer McClain.
Lauren was taken to Children’s Medical Center of Dallas where she was treated for malnutrition. According to the medical staff, her skin was peeling off her back and her buttocks and her teeth were broken and her stomach was bloated. In fact, she so malnourished that her organs were shutting down and it was estimated that she very likely could not have survived much longer. Her oesophagus was clogged with feces, carpet fibers and plastic and she did not know how to sit in a chair, write with a pencil or recite her ABCs. She had not been potty trained and did not recognize the sun or basic objects.
Both Barbara and Kenneth were arrested and charged with injury to a child. The other children who were living in the home – they ranged in age between 22 months a 11-years-old – were placed into emergency foster care. None of the children had been abused. However, the mobile home where they all had lived was filled with dirty clothes, trash, and animal faeces.5 It would be revealed that the siblings had been ordered to lie about the existence of Lauren.
An investigation would uncover that CPS has investigated allegations of abuse twice before in the home but the family had moved before they could question them. In fact, shortly after Lauren’s birth, she had been fostered but then placed back in her mother’s care despite the concerns that Barbara could not take care of Lauren properly. Barbara and Kenneth were sentenced to life imprisonment in 2002. They’re eligible for parole in 2031. After the ordeal, Lauren was adopted by Lauren Sabrina and Bill Kavanaugh who showered her with love and affection.
As Lauren grew up, she spoke about her abhorrent upbringing. She recalled how when her mother first put her in the closet, she thought it was punishment for crying. Unbeknownst to her, it would become her permanent home. She recollected how they put on country music to hide her screams as they abused and raped her. “I couldn’t do anything in the darkness. I slept in there and had to use it for the bathroom. The carpet was drenched in urine and I lay under a thin, wet blanket,” she said.
Children who are abused during their first three years of life often face irreversible cognitive damage. Far too often, these children are never going to be as functional or as bright as they could have been due to the fact they were neglected and abused during their most formative years.6 Lauren’s road back from the trauma she endured was long and bumpy. She went through years of psychotherapy and doctor visits and diagnoses.
Shortly after Lauren was rescued, studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested that she faced a bleak future, marred by antisocial behaviour, crime, drug and alcohol abuse, disease and early death. For a while, it looked as though Lauren had truly overcome her trauma and would lead a regular life. Lauren went on to study psychology at college and is a staunch supporter of other victims of sexual abuse.
However, in December of 2018, Lauren – who was 25-years-old at the time – was arrested and charged with sexually abusing a minor. Lauren had met her 14-year-old victim on Lauren’s Facebook page where she had been offering support for other victims of abuse. During an interview with police, Lauren admitted she had “a sexual relationship” with the underage girl.7
Greg Westfall, a criminal defence attorney in Fort Worth, said that the case should be dismissed due to Lauren’s traumatic upbringing. “Trauma affects the growing developing brain of the child, so the brain grows according to experiences,” he said. “When children have a steady diet of harm and danger, we’re going to anticipate a much more dire outcome.” He suggested that counselling was more appropriate as opposed to a prison sentence. “Is she a predator? Hell no. Is she someone who is going to be able to better communicate with a 14-year-old than an adult? Hell yes,” he said.8
In March of 2019, Lauren was indicted on three counts of sexual assault of a child. She is currently behind bars at the Denton County Jail and faces up to 20 years in prison on each charge if she is convicted.
- The Daily Mirror, 8 January, 2015 – “Toddler Locked in Wardrobe and Repeatedly Raped by Own Parents for Five Years”
- Houston Chronicle, 19 June, 2001 – “Girl in Closet was Sexually Abused”
- Athens Daily Review, 8 November, 2013 – “Beating the Odds, forging a Bright Future”
- The Advertiser, 14 June, 2001 – “Child Forced to Live in Tiny Cupboard”
- Houston Chronicle, 13 July, 2001 – “Police Say Rescued Child Kept in Closet for Months”
- The Deseret News, 14 June, 2001 – “Girl’s Condition Stuns Former Adoptive Dad”
- Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 19 December, 2018 – “Girl in the Closet Arrested in Sexual Assault”
- Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 21 December, 2018 – “Psychologist of Girl in the Closet Says Trauma Should Be Considered in Sex-Abuse Cases”