Tied to a toilet when she wasn’t confined to a crib, the girl spent most of the first 13 years of her life alone. The father who imprisoned and tortured her snarled like a dog and scratched her with his fingernails. He never taught her to speak, and beat her whenever she made a sound.
And though well-meaning foster families and well-trained scientists spent decades trying to introduce the girl they called Genie to the world outside the Southern California hellhole where she was rescued in 1970; Genie never even learned to speak.
For severely neglected children — such as the 3-year-old and a 5-month-old kept hidden, and in isolation, in a house in Blackstone — rescue from parents unwilling or unable to provide for the most basic needs is only the beginning of a recovery process. It can take years if it happens at all, experts on child development say, to reverse years of isolation and neglect.
“Neglect is much worse for kids than abuse is,” said Charles Nelson, a professor of pediatrics and neuroscience at Harvard Medical School. “Depriving the brain very early in life has very insidious effects.”
Many details about the horror hidden in Blackstone have emerged, but relatively little is known about the lives of Ericka Murray’s two youngest children, who a neighbor said were found covered in their own feces. Cloistered inside a house that also contained the corpses of three infants, the children were allegedly kept a secret from their father by a mother who has been described by her lawyer as mentally ill. Officials said the 3-year-old was found unable to speak, underweight, and showing signs of limited exposure to daylight.
The younger children were placed in foster care, while Murray’s two older children, who were not raised in secret, are staying with their paternal grandparents.
Neglected children’s ability to recover largely depends on how old they are when they start receiving proper care, Nelson said. “The longer they’re in those conditions, the harder it is to get them back to even keel.”
Because the two-to-three years that separate the youngest Blackstone siblings contain so many critical developmental periods, the 5-month-old has a much better chance of recovery.
“This is not to say that for the 3-year-old, the die has been cast and the child has nothing but horrible things up the road,” Nelson said. “But I would be stunned if [the child’s] language was normal, if [the child’s] emotional health was normal.”
Nelson compared the conditions in Blackstone to what he has seen during the 15 years he has studied Romanian orphans. The conditions in those orphanages, where a single staff member was tasked with caring for as many as 60 children with intellectual and physical disabilities, probably approximated the situation on the excrement-filled second floor in Blackstone, he said.
Izidor Ruckel is one of those orphans. “Children are left with wounds that leave them scarred for life,” said Ruckel, who spent his earliest years in one of the bleak, unsanitary, and barely staffed Romanian orphanages that became central to the study of extreme child neglect after the country opened its borders in 1989.
Ruckel, 34, was adopted and brought to America in 1991, but his earliest years affected him long after that.
“For a long time, I was bitter and angry,” he said. “I took it out on my friends and family. I wasn’t used to living in a home or an environment that was so kind. We were so used to the neglect and the abuse.”
Emotional problems are among many issues that can emerge among children raised without critical care early in their lives, said Ann Easterbrooks, a professor in the Department of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts.
Care in the first year after birth profoundly affects the brain’s wiring, Easterbrooks said.
“In cases of chronic, severe neglect, you see smaller brains and difficulties in emotion regulation,” Easterbrooks said. “You might see serious depression, anxiety disorders, and negativity,” including blunted positive emotions and emotional flatness.
“It affects the structure and architecture of the brain,” Easterbrooks said, including its size, number of cells, and the connection between its areas.
The prefrontal cortex, which develops rapidly in the months after birth, controls decision making, problem solving, and impulse control, she said. Those deficits are difficult — but not impossible — to overcome.
“What would be required would be massive, systemic kinds of supports at many different levels,” Easterbrooks said. “We’re not talking about a week of intervention.”
Ruckel said he was fortunate to get that kind of care.
“It requires a lot of medical treatment, and a lot of patience. Once you are able to overcome it, you’ll never forget.”
And he said the plight of Blackstone’s youngest victims rings familiarly in his ears.
“I almost consider it the same as the orphanage,” said Ruckel, who speaks on college campuses with the orphan advocacy organization Both Ends Burning and will visit Boston in November.
“You’re locking up a human being from seeing the reality of the world. Nobody will know. Nobody will ever find out.”
But sometimes somebody does find out.
And then the hard work begins.