Child neglect is a serious problem that, like all forms of child abuse, can have long-lasting effects even after it ends. It’s disheartening to think that there are parents out there who don’t provide sufficient food, care, or emotional support for their own children, but that’s sadly the reality in some case.

Sometimes, all it takes is one person — or one family — to help put an end to this neglect. So when Florida police officer Michael Holste received a call on July 13th, 2005, about a pale, thin face in the window of a neighbor’s home, he realized something had to be done.

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After seeing the face in the window, a neighbor became suspicious and called the police. Officer Holste arrived to investigate.

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Holste was shocked by what he found inside: animal feces all over the floor, chewed-up old food, garbage, spider webs, and thousands of cockroaches.

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Yet the girl he found was easily the most horrifying surprise of all. She was six years old, starving, surrounded by garbage, and wearing nothing but an old dirty diaper.

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“When I entered the room, her eyes widened,” he said. “She opened her mouth and then crawled sideways, like a crab, to the corner, pulled her knees to her chin, and wrapped her arms around them. Then she started making grunting noises.”

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The girl, whose name was Danielle, was immediately taken to a hospital. She spoke and behaved like a six-month-old.

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After being sent to jail for a mere 26 hours, Danielle’s mother was given two years in house arrest and three years on probation. Danielle was taken away from her immediately.

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A few days before she turned eight, Danielle was adopted by Diane and Bernie Lierows, a couple who already had four sons. They always wanted a girl and said that they knew from the moment they first saw her that she belonged in their family.

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Danielle and her family still have a lot of challenges to deal with. Years of abuse left her developmentally disabled, and she continues to struggle with the psychological pain of her past.

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“She has seven or eight fits a day, and she’s very concerned with food,” says Bernie, her adopted father. “She often eats until she has to throw up.”

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The Lierows’ lock their refrigerator with a chain because otherwise, she would empty everything out.

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Her childhood was unbearably terrible, but Danielle is doing better now with her new family. 

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Her new parents hope that Danielle will eventually reach independence, but at the moment, they are satisfied with the baby steps that she has been taking. “Having Dani in our lives is like a roller coaster. One that we don’t want to get off of,” they said.

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It’s truly a miracle that there are people like the Lierow’s out there willing to open up their home and their hearts. It can be difficult to change your trajectory for someone in need, especially if they are a stranger. But what if you knew that one simple act could save a life?

In October of 2003, Carlyle Smith made his way to Norwalk, Ohio, to visit the home of Michael and Sharen Gravelle. The Gravelles were in need of an extra caretaker to help care for their adopted children, and, given his wide range of experience, Smith felt he was perfect for the job.

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As a home-care specialist, Smith was already familiar with proper home etiquette, and his years spent coaching youth sports gave him all the tools he needed to manage a house full of kids. Sure, the Gravelles had 11 of them, but after leading teams of up to 30 young athletes at a time, how hard could it really be?

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When Smith arrived at the small suburban home, he was met by Michael and Sharen, who gave him a tour of the place before introducing him to their children. The house was nothing special, but there was one particular aspect that Smith couldn’t get over: at the Gravelles’ behest, he was forbidden from going upstairs.

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The Gravelles brought Smith to the backyard to meet the kids, but before he could introduce himself, the job interview took a disturbing turn. To Smith’s disgust, Sharen used racially charged language to address the children. 

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The interview became even more bizarre as Michael led Smith to a run-down “chapel” in the back of the property. There, Michael revealed to Smith that he considered himself to be Moses to his children, dutifully leading them to the “promised land”.

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By this time, Smith had heard enough, but before he had a chance to leave, one of the little boys accidentally wet himself in front of the Gravelles. Sharen was furious, but she didn’t tell him to go to his room: instead, she told him to go to his cage.

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Smith wasn’t sure if he’d heard her right, but Michael quickly cleared up any doubt by remarking on the quality of the alarms rigged to the children’s cages. He also quipped about the strength of the chicken wire around their bunk beds, citing the cuts on the kids’ fingers as an indication of their escape attempts.

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The four-hour interview ended in just 30 minutes as Smith turned down the job on the spot. After putting a few miles between himself and the Gravelles, Smith pulled onto the side of the road and began sobbing. He couldn’t just leave those children in that place.

Smith took his concerns to his work supervisor, who reached out to Child Protective Services to schedule a meeting. After explaining everything he had seen and heard that day to the agent, Smith was confident that CPS would act to remove the children from the Gravelle’s care. Unfortunately, he was wrong.

According to the agent, Smith’s testimony wasn’t enough to justify an investigation of the Gravelle home, and CPS would “look into” the case in the future. Smith was distraught. What would become of the Gravelle children now? It would be nearly three years before Smith got his answer.

Toledo Blade

On a fall morning in 2006, Smith got a call from Child Protective Services and was delivered some shocking news: Michael and Sharen Gravelle had been arrested. Apparently, a CPS agent had come across Smith’s report from 2003 and finally uncovered the abuse occurring at the Gravelle home.

Toledo Blade

A lengthy trial followed the Gravelles’ arrest, and Smith, along with a number of witnesses, testified to the cruelty the 11 children had been subjected to at the hands of their adoptive parents. Though Michael and Sharen tried to justify their actions, the Ohio couple’s days of child abuse were over.

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In the end, Michael and Sharen were each given two years in prison for two-dozen counts of child endangerment and neglect. But although the Gravelle children were finally free from their abusers, their struggle to overcome years of trauma wasn’t finished just yet.

Another round of legal battles ensued between several Ohio counties and the children’s lawyers, who claimed the county adoption and child welfare services were at fault for placing the children with Michael and Sharen in the first place. After 10 years of fighting, the Gravelle children were awarded a total of $3 million to be put toward rebuilding their lives.

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The story of the “caged kids” made national headlines, and it wasn’t long before people wondered what had become of them now that the nightmare was over. One of those people was Dr. Phil, and he was determined to provide closure for the deserving children… and give them a surprise they’d never forget.

On a 2017 episode of Dr. Phil, two of the Gravelle children, Simon and Abba, joined Dr. Phil to discuss their years of trauma and their life after the ordeal. Through it all, however, the children couldn’t help but mention the kind stranger that had saved them from a lifetime of torment.

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“If he was here right now, I would gladly give him the biggest hug ever and tell him that I love him,” Simon said of Smith, whom neither he nor Abba had seen in the almost 12 years. It was then Dr. Phil shocked everyone with just four little words: “let’s make that happen.”

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Right on cue, Smith emerged from backstage! No sooner did they see him that Simon and Abba rushed over to embrace the man that rescued them all those years ago. The tearful reunion was punctuated by sobs of “thank you,” and it was clear to everyone in the audience how much this man meant to the two teens.

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“This is a real man right here,” Simon said to the audience as the trio reflected on the events that had led them to this moment. “He saved my life. He saved her life.”

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As for Smith, seeing Simon and Abba for the first time in over a decade was definitely more worthwhile than he’d ever imagined. “It’s absolutely amazing [to see you],” Smith said as he wiped his own tears away. “I’m so proud of you guys.”

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While it’s nice to believe that most parents want their child to be happy, healthy, and “normal,” most still would accept their kids no matter how they turned out. Unfortunately, for another boy born in Ukraine, that was not the case.

Dima Kalekin’s parents abandoned him in the hospital as soon as he arrived. He was diagnosed with hydrocephalus, commonly known as “water on the brain,” and as a result had an unusual appearance. 

Dima was sent to an orphanage for disabled children in the Eastern Ukrainian town of Krematorsk. By the time Dima turned four, he still couldn’t perform basic tasks such as eating with utensils or even walking.

His caregivers believed that he’d never develop normally, though they were impressed that he’d survived for so long and could even say a select few words. Things seemed to be looking up for Dima, but fate had other plans…

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The war in Eastern Ukraine had begun, and the Krematorsk orphans, including Dima, were caught in the crossfire. Nobody could decide who should be responsible for evacuating the orphanage since it was within the disputed territory.

Without basic necessities like medical supplies, food, or even water, the caretakers and orphans fled from place to place, until a sympathetic group of separatists brought the children to Ukrainian officials.

The doctors were nearly moved to tears once the children were taken to a hospital. Dima barely seemed to be living. He already required medical attention just due to his condition, but since the war, his poor health had really taken a toll on him.

“Dima and the other children were rescued from the war,” said one of the doctors. “In his condition and with his illness, Dima didn’t stand a chance in our country.” Desperate, the doctors called in a priest, who prayed for Dima to find a family that would love him.

Perhaps the prayers were heard because mere weeks after being moved into a new orphanage with the other children, he was visited by a family from Vermont. They were determined to adopt a child from the area since they knew how terrible the war was.

The couple already had seven adopted children, so they were prepared with all the documentation and experience that they needed. They knew they wanted to adopt Dima from the moment that they first saw him.

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In September of 2015—just two months after first meeting him— The boy was officially adopted. As he met his new brothers and sisters and settled into life in Vermont he was also given a new name: Zebediah Chaves.

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Just two days after arriving in the United States, Zebediah was able to start using a spoon! Clearly, he was making fantastic progress, as was struggling with a lot of basic motor skills all the way up until his arrival at his new home.

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A year after that, Zebediah was able to speak, and he was even bilingual! He also learned how to walk. Doctors were hopeful that he’ll develop into a normal, healthy child since he didn’t sustain any significant damage from his condition.