June 29, 2007 — -- Nobody knew the secrets hidden inside the dilapidated house on Blanco Street in Austin, Texas. Overgrown bushes practically hid the front door, and the stench of raw sewage kept strangers at bay. For years, wails and shrieks pierced the night, confounding neighbors on the quiet block near Austin's capitol building.
Jerrel Gustafson grew up in the neighborhood and recalls the rotting porch, the caved-in roof and the broken windows. "Basically, what I remembered about it is the shades being closed all the time. … The fact that they would never let me in the house was very interesting to me at the time," he said.
Hidden behind the bushes and the debris were Charles and Edna Barr. By the late 1980s, the mysterious couple still lived on Blanco Street with their two adult children, Clyde and Diana.
When Gustafson was in town to visit his parents, he would occasionally run into his childhood neighbor. "I saw Diana pregnant," he said. "And I was quite surprised at that. Because I just never knew her to date anybody." Diana was learning-disabled and typically stayed close to home.
As the years progressed, Gustafson saw no outward signs that anything was wrong with the Barr family, other than their increasingly deteriorating home.
Other neighbors, though, noticed something strange and haunting at the house: a girl's face in a window and, once, a girl on the porch. Moaning noises and groans emanated from the lot, leading some to view the house on Blanco as haunted. Other neighbors, suspecting a more practical explanation, called the authorities.
In late 1994, and again in January 1995, phone calls were made to the Austin division of Child Protective Services. A young CPS worker responded to the complaints and spoke to the Barrs at their house. The worker left without giving a report to his seniors or outlining a safety plan. But in October 1995, a third report of "unlivable" conditions at the house was made to CPS.
According to a neighbor, rats were "living in a nest on the front porch" and "climbing up the screen door." Those eerie moaning noises that echoed through the streets were still being heard several times a week.
CPS dispatched a second worker to follow up. After making an initial visit, the worker documented concerns about the safety conditions in the home and wrote a brief safety plan for the Barrs. After the worker said that CPS would follow up and make additional home visits, the worker left. For the next two years, the Barrs remained in the home, undisturbed by CPS and their neighbors.
In October of 1997, a fourth call complaining about the living conditions at the house was placed to CPS, and a worker once again responded. And a child who few knew existed was finally removed from the home. This "wild child" had never gone to school, or played outdoors. The girl was a 9-year-old named Victoria.
Richard LaVallo, a court-appointed lawyer for the young girl, was shocked when he first met her.
"She wouldn't walk through doorways. She didn't wear clothes. She was in a shelter, just sitting on a mattress," he said. For the first time, he saw the house. "It was dank and dirty and the one thing I did notice were the rats. I mean, rats were running between my legs and running on my sides. They live there. Everyone lived among the rats. And [the family] didn't make up excuses or apologies for it."
Victoria appeared to have learned from the rats. She couldn't speak, and the only noises she made were squeaks that resembled those of the rats.
Victoria was brought to the home of foster parents Eduardo and Gladys Venegas.
"When we first got her … if she were to get paper, she would shred it up. … She was making the rats' nests in return for them being in there with her, and helping her out. … When she started learning and mimicking their squeaking sounds, that's what led us to believe that they were there with her all the time," said Eduardo Venegas. "I would go up to her and touch her and she didn't even look at me -- like I wasn't even there."
The story of the "wild child" quickly became front page news in Austin. She was a real-life version of Nell, the character played by Jodie Foster in a movie of the same name released in 1994. Public outrage was directed to CPS and the Barrs: How could CPS have been to the house twice before and still left Victoria in those conditions?
As part of her recovery, Victoria was given hundreds of hours of therapy by teachers at her school and by University of Texas counselors, including language pathologist . Dena Granof. The question on everyone's minds: Could the neglect that Victoria suffered in her early years be reversed? Was she born disabled, or had her environment caused her extensive disability?
"Clearly, her surroundings contributed to this significant delay," said Granof. "I don't really think you can actually ever make that determination, because whether somebody is mentally disabled from birth or as a result of a lack of stimulation, the brain doesn't develop properly. The end result is the same."
Gladys Venegas, however, felt that had someone done something at the very beginning, when the authorities were first notified about the situation at the house, Victoria might not have reached her current condition.
Victoria's mother, Diana Barr, spoke to ABC News to give her side of the story. Now 55 years old, she lives in state-subsidized housing. She said that at an early age, she knew that Victoria was different from other children, and tried to protect her by keeping her inside the house.
Presiding over the custody case, Judge Scott McCown said he could see Diana's affection. "Every decision she made was a bad one. But somehow, she had communicated that love and created a bond of empathy," he said. "Diana had mental health issues, she had developmental issues. She herself was barely coping with life. And she didn't meet her child's needs. Did she love her child? Yes. I've seen a lot of mean parents who don't love their children. And one of the things they do is abandon them to the state. Diana hung in there, and she has hung in there for all these years."
Despite Diana's obvious love for her daughter, McCown ruled it was in Victoria's best interests to remain with Gladys and Eduardo Venegas.
During her senior year of high school, 18-year-old Victoria was elected honorary homecoming queen by her fellow students. Enrolled in special education classes, she is still unable to speak, although she is able to communicate through sign language. She still lives with the Venegas family, although she has now aged out of foster care and her care is overseen by the Department for Disability and Aged Services. This past May, Victoria graduated with a special diploma from Dripping Springs High School, outside Austin.
LaVallo remains her court-appointed attorney and helps operate a trust fund on Victoria's behalf. He hopes that she will one day be able to live in a group home, and perhaps work in a volunteer position. But much of her past will forever remain a mystery, locked in her own mind.
Victoria's trust fund is called the Victoria Fund. Donations can be mailed to Frost National Bank, Financial Management Group, c/o Kris Walsh, P.O. Box 2127, Austin, TX, 78768. Donations are not tax deductible.