Part 1 of 3
The little boy lived with his mother and two sisters in a tiny house on a quiet street.
He seldom left. Although he was almost 7, he had never been in a classroom. He hadn’t seen a doctor in years. He couldn’t walk or go to the bathroom by himself, and his body was so frail that his arms were no bigger than a garden hose.
His name was Giovanni, but people called him Govi. Joe-Vee.
The boy had many relatives, but he hadn’t seen them in a long time. His mother kept him away from family, just as she kept him apart from the world. She would yell at him and sometimes hit him. When she went out, she would lock him in a closet or bedroom. She would tell his sisters not to say anything about him.
Once, when he was shut in a back room, he got out and tore through kitchen cabinets looking for food. When his mother returned, she hit him and called him names: Idiot. Retard. Stupid.
On an August day, she again left Govi behind. He was alone when a worried family member slipped into the home to see if he was there.
The relative found the little boy, weak and emaciated, sitting on the floor with a bowl of water in front of him.
The man stayed for a while to keep the boy company. Then, afraid of getting in trouble for sneaking in, he left to tell other family members: Govi needs help.
The sun had set hours ago in the run-down De Soto neighborhood. The streets where children had ridden bikes and played that day had fallen silent. Parents had come home from work, eaten supper and gone to bed.
But in one yard, a woman with graying hair pleaded her case to two Johnson County deputies.
“He’s in there,” Patricia Moran said. “I know he’s in there.”
She had heard from a relative about the scene the day before: her great-grandson Govi, left alone in the home, sitting on the floor with a bowl of water.
Moran and her son, Marty Foster, Govi’s grandfather, knew they needed to tell authorities and get help. And now, the great-grandmother and the law had come looking for the little boy.
The two deputies standing with Moran in the 8200 block of Center Drive were the second law officers sent out that day. The first deputies had showed up around 2 in the afternoon, but they couldn’t find Govi. They spoke with his mother, Rachel Perez, who told them Govi was away with his father.
The first deputies didn’t see any toys or clothes that suggested a boy even lived in the duplex with Perez and her two daughters. So they left, taking Perez — pregnant with her fourth child — to jail because she had outstanding traffic warrants.
Family members called around and couldn’t find the boy. He wasn’t with his dad. So they called authorities again. This time, after 11 p.m., Moran met Deputies Evan Comerio and John Klingele outside granddaughter Rachel’s home.
The air wasn’t sticky as it often is on a late summer night in Kansas. The temperature had been close to 90 degrees the day before and would be almost as stifling the day after. But on this day, Aug. 17, 2010, the high was in the low 80s with a little rain that seemed to cool the air.
Law enforcement can’t just barge into a home, the deputies told Moran as the three stood in the yard surrounded by darkness. They needed some indication, some sort of evidence, that Govi was inside.
They would call to him, see if he answered.
Let me, Moran told the deputies. He’ll know my voice. She hoped her great-grandson, the boy so sweet in nature and always smiling, would hear her.
Her voice cut through the night in the practiced and penetrating call of a mom wanting her children to come in for dinner.
Perez was 18 years old when she became a mother. She doted on little Brandee, constantly snapping photos of her. She’d show the pictures to family, proud not only of her little girl but also of her photography. For a while, she dabbled with the art.
Brandee was a toddler when Govi came along.
His father was in the picture when Govi was born, but the couple didn’t stay together. Perez worked odd jobs when she could but often relied on family to make ends meet.
Her third child, Angel, born before Govi turned 2, had a different father. But it was Govi who was singled out for abuse and neglect.
He was born with Down syndrome, a genetic disorder in which a child has an extra chromosome 21. Children born with the disorder are prone to medical conditions such as heart defects, sleep apnea and thyroid problems. About 75 percent have mild cognitive impairments and delays and an IQ from 50 to 70.
Children with Down syndrome are often small. Throughout their childhood, physicians keep track of their growth, making sure they’re getting the right nutrition, said Nasreen Talib, medical director of the Down syndrome program at Children’s Mercy Hospital.
At 23 months, during a doctor’s visit, Govi’s weight was below the fifth percentile on the Down syndrome growth chart used at the time.
A lack of nourishment can further hamper brain development and delay developments such as walking and talking.
At 23 months, during a doctor’s visit, Govi’s weight was below the fifth percentile on the Down syndrome growth chart used at the time. The clinic scheduled another appointment for the next month, but there’s no record Perez ever took him to a doctor again.
When family members questioned the boy’s size or progress, Perez would shrug it off.
“She’d just say, ‘That’s how kids with (Down syndrome) are,’ ” said Foster, her father. “She’d always say the doctor said it would be all right. … And if you questioned her, she wouldn’t come around for a while. She’d go live somewhere else and wouldn’t call.”
Foster has five sons and one daughter, Perez. When she was growing up and Foster and his wife divorced, he didn’t see his daughter much. From the time she was 11 until she was 17, he said, he saw her about four times.
Still, he says he loved Rachel and had always seen her as a person of compassion. She’d been close with a cousin of Foster’s who had muscular dystrophy, and Rachel seemed, to her father, as someone who wanted to help people with disabilities.
Once she had children, she came around more often. And from what Foster saw, she treated the two little girls well. They were well behaved with nice clothes and what he called fancy shoes. A lot of times, Govi wouldn’t be with her. She’d tell Foster that the boy was with his dad.
Years before, Perez had told some family members that Govi was too much for her to handle. She needed help. She would let someone else care for Govi, but only her mother or her Aunt Stacy.
Yet when that aunt, Stacy Eastwood, and her husband, Joe Eastwood, offered to care for the boy permanently —on the condition that Perez cut ties with Govi so he wouldn’t be confused — the young mother refused.
“Then we didn’t see her,” Stacy Eastwood said.
Foster hadn’t seen Govi in six months. He’d seen Rachel and the two girls, but his daughter again said Govi was with his dad. The boy had looked thin to his grandpa during that last visit, but nothing to indicate his health was in danger.
No one in Perez’s family knew that Govi’s body had wasted away to little more than skin and bones.
Outside the duplex, two sergeants — Mark Rokusek and Brent Moore — had joined Deputies Comerio and Klingele.
Despite the great-grandmother’s insistence, some of the officers were skeptical that the boy was inside, sure that the first deputies would have found him. Another figured, if anything, the child was scared and hiding under a bed.
The four listened as Moran called out.
She caught a faint sound.
“Did you hear that?” Moran asked the officers.
Deputy Klingele, the second one to respond to the “check the welfare” call, picked it up first: a sing-song hum that echoed faintly off the other duplexes.
Then Rokusek heard what sounded like a grunt.
They had enough to go inside.
The officers checked around the duplex for the easiest access point. On the east side, away from the street, they found an open window. The other officers hoisted Klingele up.
He climbed in through a stench of urine that was flowing out.
Klingele headed to the front door to let the others in, flicking on lights as he went, illuminating what seemed like a new layer of filth in each room. Human feces on the floor, urine stains on the carpet, vomit in a portable crib. Dirty dishes and leftover food on the counters. Maggots.
The smell was so bad that when deputies could step outside, they would suck in deep, desperate breaths of fresh air. “We talk about living conditions,” Moore said later, “but they were more like dying conditions.”
The deputies checked closets and looked under beds and behind furniture. Nothing. As Moran waited outside, they called Govi’s name. They listened again for any sign of a little boy.
Comerio heard a scratching sound, but couldn’t tell where it was coming from.
Then Klingele heard the hum again and looked up. There, set into the ceiling, was an access panel. His stomach dropped.
He knew that officers at the jail had asked Perez whether the duplex had an attic or basement, and that she had said no. Yet deputies would soon discover how much the single mother had misled them.
Stretching to the limits of his 6-foot-4 frame, Klingele eased the panel upward. He felt resistance.
Then the panel broke free, and Klingele pushed it up into the darkness.
Part 2 of 3
The boy sat alone in an attic. He had no food or water. He propped himself on a rafter amid chunks of pink fiberglass insulation that ate at his skin. Nail points stuck out of boards like fangs.
The only light came through slits in a vent, and eventually the boy sat in complete darkness. As the hours ticked on, his frail body became even weaker.
Almost 7 years old, Govi weighed 17 pounds, about the same as two gallons of milk.
He’d been up there for more than nine hours when he felt a board beneath his legs push up. Someone was there.
Someone had come for him.
Deputy John Klingele stood on his toes, pushing up on the panel that allowed access to the attic.
He and three others from the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department had come looking for a boy who family members insisted had been left alone when his mother was arrested earlier in the day on traffic warrants. They’d heard noises coming from inside the home that gave them reason to enter. Patricia Moran, Govi’s great-grandmother, waited outside.
The deputies went room to room in the De Soto duplex, calling Govi’s name. They heard movement, then the same hum they’d heard outside. Finally, Klingele realized the sound was coming from above.
The access panel went up.
Two tiny feet flopped down.
Startled, Sgt. Mark Rokusek and Sgt. Brent Moore stepped back. Deputy Evan Comerio wasn’t sure what he was seeing.
The boy’s body was so gaunt that as he bent down, his head dropped between his feet. They’d come here on a mid-August night looking for a young boy. But the child staring at them looked more like a baby.
It was like a scene from Auschwitz, Klingele thought. Skin stretched over bones.
As he took Govi into his arms, he couldn’t believe how much this boy didn’t weigh.
The deputy, a father of three, thought of his own children at home, safe in their beds. He thought of his little one, just 15 months old and weighing 18 pounds, a little more than this boy in his arms. The deputy’s middle child, almost 4, was about the same height.
Klingele looked down at Govi.
How did he survive?
Seven minutes before midnight, Govi’s mother, Rachel Perez, called her family from the Johnson County jail. One of her traffic citations was from another county and there’d be no resolving that until morning.
The jail recorded a call between her and her father, Marty Foster.
Foster: “We found him, Rachel.”
Foster, angry: “In your attic.”
Perez: “What the hell are you talking about?”
Foster: “We have Giovanni. He’s on the way to the hospital.”
Foster: “Huh, hell.”
He would say later that he never could have imagined his daughter mistreating Govi — the boy with Down syndrome who as a toddler would sit with his grandpa and his wife and chatter, drawing them in with his smile and playing with his uncles’ wrestling action figures.
Foster told his daughter that she’d never convince him she didn’t know Govi had spent hours alone in the hot attic. In the coming days, he would go to the duplex to get clothes for Govi’s sisters, Brandee and Angel. He’d see the filth and maggots and feel the heat of the attic. And he would cry.
“Holy shit, Rachel,” he said. “Why? Why?”
“It was not on purpose,” she said, her voice almost a whisper.
“What do you mean, ‘It wasn’t on purpose’?” Foster asked. “Are you that ashamed of him, Rachel?”
“No, Dad,” she said. “That’s not what happened. … Daddy, I tried to get up there with him.”
Foster said he needed to get off the phone so he could call his mother. Moran was still at the duplex.
“As a father, I love you,” he told Perez. “And I want you to get some help.
“He would have been dead if we hadn’t went back.”
An ambulance whisked Govi to Children’s Mercy Hospital. The next 24 hours were crucial. Not just for Govi, but for his family.
At the hospital, doctors pumped fluids into Govi, following a chart that measured how many calories his malnourished body could handle. As they assessed him, a clearer picture of his suffering emerged.
Starved of nutrients, the boy had lost hair on his head, his bones were brittle and bowed from rickets, and the fatty tissue on his bottom had wasted away. One doctor said Govi wouldn’t have lived much longer if he hadn’t been rescued that night.
The first step back was simply a matter of getting the nutrients he had been deprived of for so long. He gained more than a pound from liquids before he had his first bite to eat.
Govi’s physical condition, though, was just part of it. The emotional toll seemed insurmountable for a boy who had been abused and neglected, isolated in locked bedrooms and closets and ultimately the attic.
Severely abused and neglected children don’t heal in days or months. And they don’t do it alone.
Stacy Eastwood was in a cell phone store when she heard the news.
Word was spreading through the family members about the rescue of her great-nephew. They wondered aloud what would lead a mother to treat her child this way.
Rachel put Govi in the attic. They couldn’t find him. There’s a good chance Govi won’t live.
Stacy remembered the September day in 2003 when Govi, her great-nephew, was born. Stacy’s sister, Lori Monroy — Rachel’s mother — had called to share concern that Rachel wasn’t taking the Down syndrome diagnosis well. Stacy went to the hospital.
As she held the baby, touching his light brown skin and looking into his eyes, she saw only beauty.
“He’s perfect,” she remembered saying. “There’s nothing wrong with him. He’s not the one who is screwed up; we are.”
Stacy and her husband, Joe Eastwood, discussed what had happened to Govi and what he faced. They talked about his sisters, Brandee and Angel, and the case building against Perez.
They also sat through periods of silence in those first days after Govi’s rescue. They needed time to work through everything in their own heads.
Stacy grew up in rural Leavenworth County, more cowboy boots and horses than ballet shoes and dolls. She was always the one in the room who said exactly what she thought. She’d back it up and wouldn’t back down.
Sometimes the words came out more blunt than polished. For her, life was about relationships and doing what’s right. Not about what sounded or looked the best.
And when it came to family, she was there, the way she was with Rachel’s mom. Lori was three years older than Stacy. Growing up, the two fought as sisters do. But as adults, they were best friends.
In 2008, Lori’s kidneys were failing. She spent her last 3½ months with Stacy and her family.
Just before she died, Lori asked her sister to do something for her after she was gone: “Take care of my babies.” She worried about her grandchildren, especially Govi.
Those words carried a stronger message now.
Stacy knew her husband of 11 years, a family-first guy, was also thinking about the three siblings and their future. And she knew, when she spoke to him, that he would understand what she said.
“We have to do something.”
Betsy Bautz was nervous on the day she met Govi.
Driving south on Interstate 35, she headed to the Kansas foster home where he and his sisters were living. A volunteer with Court Appointed Special Advocates of Johnson & Wyandotte Counties, Bautz had been going to homes like this for three years.
But this case was different.
What does a 7-year-old weighing 20 pounds look like? A boy who wasn’t potty-trained and never even learned to walk?
Brandee and Angel would need help, too. They had heard the smacks and name calling. They had seen their brother get locked away. They’d felt guilt when they received more food than he did, and they’d saved bits to sneak to him.
The girls eventually would tell stories of how their mother became angry when Govi soiled his clothes. She’d haul him to the shower, yelling at him. The girls would hear the running water but also the banging that comes when someone puts up a struggle. They would listen to their brother gurgling and choking.
They, like Govi, needed to heal. And Bautz was among the first to help them down that road.
But how would Govi, a boy with Down syndrome, respond to therapy? Bautz didn’t know how far he would be able to go.
She had been working with Govi and his sisters for several weeks when she went to school for lunch. It was a chance to catch up on his progress and see if there was anything he needed.
When Govi sat down at the classroom table, he hunched forward and wrapped one arm around his tray. Like a makeshift fort protects toy army men, he was guarding his lunch.
“That’s your food,” Bautz assured him. “You eat your food.” She wanted him to know she wasn’t going to take anything from him.
As she spent more time with Govi, she took cues from him, letting him guide her as she worked to gain his trust.
She noticed he would flinch from the slightest touch. Bautz wanted to hug him, but if she just brushed by him he would cry, “Ow, ow, ow.”
A month after that first school lunch, Bautz went again. And Govi surprised her. As she sat with him, he no longer wrapped his arm around his tray, guarding his food.
This time, he offered her some.
A jury never heard the evidence against Govi’s mom.
Rachel Perez pleaded guilty days after a Johnson County district judge heard the preliminary case against her. A big part of the prosecution’s case, along with the testimony from officers and the physician who treated Govi, were the photos of the emaciated boy.
Chris Brown, who prosecuted the case with Erika DeMarco, would always remember where he was standing when he saw the images.
“My first thought was, ‘Oh my God, how is this kid still alive?’ ”
It was the worst case of physical abuse either prosecutor had seen in which the child survived.
“A kid does not get this bad in a couple of days,” said DeMarco, an assistant Johnson County prosecutor. “He doesn’t get this bad in a couple of months. This had to be something going on for a lengthy period of time.”
Govi was so calm when the deputies rescued him from the attic that they figured it wasn’t his first time there. But authorities weren’t able to determine how often he had been put in the attic.
Perez pleaded guilty to child abuse and aggravated child endangerment. She pleaded no contest to attempted second-degree murder; she didn’t accept guilt on that charge but stipulated that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict her.
The prosecutors thought so, too.
“She put him in the attic; she made false statements,” said Brown, then the section chief of the Johnson County district attorney’s sex crimes and child abuse unit. “She knew where he was and still didn’t say, ‘Hey, by the way, it’s August and my young child with Down syndrome, who by the way weighs less than 19 pounds, is in the attic.’ ”
At sentencing, Perez sobbed.
She said she tried to hide that day in August 2010 when she saw the police outside.
“I put my son where he was,” she told the judge. “I tried to climb up and as I climbed up, I grabbed the ledge and ... I fell through a table. I start panicking. I couldn’t reach him. I couldn’t do anything. I didn’t want him to fall out, so I repositioned the cover so that he wouldn’t fall out and get hurt.”
She said that when deputies started asking questions about Govi, she lied.
“How was I supposed to tell the deputies, ‘Oh, you’re here to check on the welfare of my son. Well, I was just trying to hide him and stuck him in the attic,’ Perez told the judge. “I didn’t know.”
When she was done talking and after attorneys on both sides had had their say, the judge spoke.
He called the actions of Govi’s mother “unfathomable” and sentenced her to 8 1/2 years in prison.
“The maximum sentence here is not a terribly long sentence for what happened to Giovanni,” he said.
But it was all the law allowed.
As news of Govi’s case spread, calls came in from across the country. People wanted to help him. Did he need clothes? Did he and the girls need toys? Anything?
Some families wanted to adopt the young boy.
That worried Stacy Eastwood, Govi’s great-aunt.
“I didn’t want Govi getting adopted by someone, somewhere else in the state or in another state and the girls going somewhere else,” she said later.
“I wanted to be their voice. I wanted to be the one to help them get through it.”
The whole family did. Their two boys, Tucker and Spencer, 9 and 10 at the time, came up with a plan.
Tucker would let the girls have his room, the boys told their parents. Govi could bunk with the two brothers in Spencer’s room.
Stacy’s oldest son, Ryan, who had started a family of his own, had already signed up to take care of Tucker and Spencer if something happened to her and Joe. He assured his mom that if needed in the years to come, he would take on the lifelong commitment for Govi.
Tucker and Spencer said they’d help out as adults, too. Tucker would take Govi during hunting season; Spencer wanted baseball season.
In October 2010, Joe Eastwood talked with Bautz. The Eastwoods wanted to do whatever they could for the children. Even they didn’t know what that would be.
“We jumped in eyes wide shut and hearts wide open,” Stacy would later say.
Years later, in therapy, Govi would remember that Joe Eastwood had come to see him in the hospital. And he remembered what “Unc Joe” told him: “You’re going to be OK, boy.”
Brandee, Govi and Angel moved into the Eastwoods’ home as foster children in January 2011.
“It wasn’t as easy as everyone thought,” Stacy said later.
The older boys started to resent the way everything had changed. The transition took more sacrifice than just giving up a bedroom. Much of the attention went to the three new siblings. Everything was shared. Everything was different.
They began to have fights.
And Stacy would resort to an old family saying about overcoming a big obstacle: “We eat our elephants one bite at a time.”
One day, she called the five kids into the living room. She was going with her gut here, but she wanted the children to understand each other. To know that with the bad also comes the good.
So she tried something. She had the kids sit in a circle and, starting with Spencer, say one thing that bugged them about one of their siblings. Then they followed it up with something good.
Spencer said something he didn’t like about Brandee. Then he added: “She’s a good artist.”
Brandee went next: She didn’t like it when one man who had been in Perez’s life would grab Angel and “throw her across the room.”
The boys sat stunned. Off to the side, Stacy watched her two older boys try to understand what that meant.
It took awhile for them to grasp how different their lives were. They’d been raised in a loving family where you watched TV together, played ball outside and went to wrestling practice after school. Mom and dad made dinner and helped with homework.
“You mean, throw her?” they asked. “Actually pick her up and throw her? … Across the room?”
They made overhead throwing motions, like they were passing a basketball. They couldn’t visualize how a man could throw a girl.
And the three siblings couldn’t begin to imagine the starkly different life their cousins had lived.
On May 9, 2012, inside a Johnson County courtroom not far from where Perez had been taken away in handcuffs, the three siblings sat in front of District Judge Kathleen Sloan.
“The court absolutely believes that this adoption is in these children’s best interest,” Sloan said.
Stacy and Joe adopted the three siblings.
Their first foster mom was there. So was Bautz. She posed with the children for a photo in front of the courthouse. Govi sat close, one arm wrapped around “Etsy.”
On the way out of the courthouse, the kids released blue helium balloons with the message, “No More Abuse !! !! !!”
Stacy knew she and Joe were doing what Lori would have wanted: taking care of her babies.
“Whatever they’d been through, they went through together,” Stacy said later. “And I wanted them to come out of it together.”
But there was so much she didn’t know. Would the girls be OK? And how far could Govi go? Did he have a chance to heal, to fully recover, to become a complete boy?
Part 3 of 3
Stacy Eastwood sits next to 11-year-old Govi at a table and studies his face.
He is smiling, hopping in his seat.
On this spring day in 2015, three years have passed since Stacy and her husband adopted Govi (Joe-Vee) and his two sisters. It’s been almost five years since his rescue.
In a soft voice, Stacy asks the question.
“Govi, do you remember what happened? Do you remember what happened to you in the attic?”
In seconds, the boy changes, dropping his head, tightening his arms, balling his fists. He stands.
“Mommy’s mad,” he says, his face scrunching.
“What’s she mad at?” Stacy asks.
Govi fixes his eyes on the floor as Stacy leans in to let him know she is there.
“You tell her,” he says, briefly glancing at his adoptive mom. “Tell her, ‘Don’t put my boy in the attic.’ ”
Stacy assures him that she will.
“I’m sad,” Govi says, head still tilted toward the ground. “... Mommy makes me sad. ... You talk to her.”
He turns to two visitors across the table.
“You two,” he says. “You two talk to my mommy.”
“What do you want us to tell her?” Stacy asks. “Never again?”
“Never,” Govi says, shaking his head.
The 7-year-old boy sat on the floor, playing with plastic animals.
Just months before, he had been rescued, severely malnourished, from his mother’s attic. Since then, he had put on weight, beefing up a frail frame that was just over 17 pounds when he was found. His bones were getting stronger, and he was starting to walk on his own.
Emotional healing would take longer.
The boy wrapped his small hand around a black-and-white plastic animal and lifted it to the seat of a chair in front of him.
Stay there, zebra.
With his other hand, the boy took a lion, bigger than the zebra, and placed that one on the lowest level.
The boy tensed. The lion was angry. Angry at the zebra. And the lion would punish the zebra by putting him up high, in the attic, and keeping him there.
Govi was the zebra. Sometimes sisters Brandee and Angel were zebras, too. And his biological mother, Rachel Perez — “Mommy” — was the lion.
Often, the lion was angry, pouncing and hitting. Counselor Sonya Richardson-Thomas would watch and ask questions. She’d notice what other animals he’d bring in and which ones were the good guys and which the bad guys. The giraffes were good.
Govi’s great-aunt, Stacy Eastwood, was a giraffe. So was her husband, Joe.
“What does the giraffe do?”
The boy took the giraffe and pulled the zebra out of the attic. In his world, giraffes were the ones that rescued zebras.
This is how Govi would play. And it’s how he would start to heal.
Therapy can be critical for victims of abuse. They get the opportunity to share what happened to them and work through dark memories. Then they can begin to move forward.
For Govi, the question was how much he would benefit from therapy. Children often don’t have the verbal and reasoning skills needed to share feelings and experiences. Because Govi has Down syndrome, no one knew exactly what his cognitive abilities would allow him to do.
What medical experts do know is children with Down syndrome can be more affected by trauma than other children. If children with the genetic disorder see or hear something scary, they will keep thinking about it. And they can’t work through it with words.
So worries and fears often grow, and they may act out their fears or withdraw from people.
But kids play. That’s their language, their work. And it can be their therapy. Some of the abuse and neglect Govi had endured came out as he played.
Reliving trauma can be hard; some people give up. But not Govi.
“I think he did nothing but seek healing,” Richardson-Thomas said. “He knew what he needed to do to heal. He just needed us to guide him, not push him too fast, not let him be stuck.”
Richardson-Thomas had been a counselor for three years at Synergy Services in Kansas City when she met Govi — not long after he and his sisters went to live with the Eastwoods.
The day she met him, he grabbed her hand and the two went back to her office. At 7, his walk was a bit unsteady. He was just getting used to his legs.
He quickly learned the way to her office and felt safe with her there. But when she wanted him to go to her play room, he balked. He didn’t know that space. He didn’t trust what would happen there.
That made sense to Richardson-Thomas.
“Before, when someone took him from place A to place B, he didn’t know where place B was,” she said. “So why would he trust that? ... It’s a safety thing.”
It would take months for him to go to the play room. In the meantime, Richardson-Thomas learned to keep some toys in her office, so they could still progress in therapy.
At first, he played with cars and trucks. She watched as he banged them together, often in an angry way. He’d give the cars names; they represented people in his life.
When he moved on to animals, he acted out scenes. If an animal got in trouble, it would be banished to the highest level of wherever he was playing. Eventually, he moved on to people figurines.
The play therapy reached him in a way conversation couldn’t.
Early on, he struggled with the police car. It brought up images, memories, he wasn’t ready to face. After more time in the room, working with her, he could play with the police car.
But he still struggled with the ambulance and didn’t want to put any people inside it. The ambulance took him to a place he didn’t know, full of people he didn’t know. Going back there was hard.
One thing that may have helped Govi in his healing, the counselor said, is his cognitive ability. Like many children with Down syndrome, he’s all black and white, no gray.
“He’s not a ‘maybe’ guy,” she said. “He’s just all in or he’s not. Nobody else is going to live in that attic and psychologically and mentally sustain an attitude to stay alive unless they have the resilience and ability to say what he was saying: ‘Yes, I’m going to do this.’ ”
It was one day early in 2011 when Stacy knew Govi could accomplish what he put his mind to.
She and Joe had taken Govi to a wrestling tournament to watch their older sons Tucker and Spencer compete as members of the Greater Heights independent wrestling team. Govi, not yet walking on his own, soaked in everything around him. The people, the referees, the boys squaring off and flipping each other. He watched the way the wrestlers’ arms moved.
Then Govi got the attention of one wrestler and gestured for him to come over. When the wrestler stood in front of him, Govi motioned to the floor.
He wanted to wrestle.
Govi crawled into position and used one hand to make a chopping motion on the other boy’s arm: his first wrestling move.
Govi’s grandpa, Marty Foster, remembered years before when the little boy played with his uncles’ wrestler action figures. Maybe that’s why Govi took to the sport.
He went to more matches, still looking more like a baby than a boy. He would sit with wrestler Colston DiBlasi and sip Gatorade through a straw.
“You had to pace him or he would literally drink the whole thing,” DiBlasi said later. “It was like he wasn’t sure if he was going to get any again.”
Coach Jason Keck remembers Govi’s early days with the team: “When he first came on the mat, he’d be in cowboy boots and cutoff jean shorts with a big smile on his face. How can you look at that and not smile?”
Keck and the other coaches made sure Govi understood the basic principles. At practice, teammates would remind Govi to listen when the coaches were talking. They’d correct him just as they would any other wrestler.
“His ability to understand the process and re-create some moves, he did that at a high level,” Keck said.
He points to the family dynamic with the Eastwoods.
“It’s pretty conducive for Govi to pick up and learn,” Keck said. “He doesn’t get babied, but at the same time, Stacy and the family have the patience so Govi does understand and develops at his own rate.”
Over time, Keck saw the little boy making a difference in the athletes’ lives.
When he was there, they “would be looking outside themselves,” the coach said. Govi made them see beyond their own lives, to the bigger world around them.
For Stacy, wrestling helped Govi realize what he’s capable of. The sport motivated him. Even from the beginning, when Govi was learning to walk.
“Wrestlers walk,” she would tell Govi. Stacy said those words on video as she captured some of his first solo steps.
There’s one video of Govi that Stacy watches every so often. It’s from 2012.
By that time, almost two years after his rescue, Govi had already wrestled plenty in practice, pulling athletes to the ground, working through moves. He’d taken on his brothers on the living room floor.
But a real match? With a referee, in front of a crowd at the Hearnes Center in Columbia, and against a win-or-lose opponent? Keck wanted that for his young wrestler, the boy who had become so much more than just an athlete to him.
This could be the day, the coach told Stacy and Joe. Make sure he is ready.
Govi stands on the tournament mat wearing a gray T-shirt over a black wrestling singlet. Blue headgear swallows his ears. He faces his opponent, a younger, smaller wrestler volunteered by another team.
As the crowd watches, the referee motions for the two boys to start.
Off to the side, Keck cheers Govi on. Pushes him. “Get his leg, Govi. … On your belly. Get to your belly.”
Govi lands on his backside first and wiggles away. His shoe comes off and he hurries to slip it back on.
He pops back up and goes at his opponent again.
A few more times, his opponent gets him to the ground and Govi breaks his hold. Always fighting back. It’s what Keck and the other coaches, his brothers and Stacy and Joe have taught him.
“Govi, take him down,” Keck yells.
Not far from Keck is Stacy. On the mat, tears in her eyes, coaching her boy. Whatever Keck says, she says. Only louder, for Govi to hear. To know she is there.
“Get up, Govi,” she cheers. “To your belly. Govi, get back to your belly.”
After escaping a few more holds, Govi gets on top of his opponent, looks over to his coach, Stacy and Joe, and grins.
As she watches him wrestle, Stacy sees heart and passion in Govi, the same force of will she saw in therapy and every time he worked to overcome a bad memory. She can tell he’s thinking, “I got him.”
And that is the moment that she knows her boy is going to be OK.
One of Govi’s teammates hollers: “Come on, Govi, you’re kicking butt.”
In the end, though, Govi doesn’t win. It isn’t even close.
But he doesn’t know that. Seconds after the last whistle, Govi struts around the gym, arms in the air. With his hands, he gestures down at his chest. It’s his way of telling everyone, that was me. That was my match. Oh, yeah.
The smile on his face is electric.
Govi sits at a desk island in Mrs. Chambers’ special education class, cutting and gluing with two other students.
The boy who’d never been inside a school until after deputies pulled him from an attic is now an 11-year-old in the fourth grade. With his tongue out, he moves his scissors in a curve along a dotted line.
Then he sees visitors, including Stacy, come into the room.
“Hi, Govi’s mom!” a student yells out.
Govi stands. He claps his hands and turns as he smiles so the whole class can see.
“That’s my mom,” he says. A few seconds later, he says it again, just to make sure everyone knows.
In this school in Platte County, Govi has learned his letters and numbers, the difference between less than and greater than, how to raise his hand when he has a question and how to walk in a line down the hallway.
When he’s angry, he takes deep breaths. When he’s frustrated, he walks away to take a moment by himself.
A chart on his desk tracks his good behavior and the rewards he can earn. More than once, he’s worked toward some quiet time listening to Johnny Cash. He likes Cash’s songs so much that if he thinks a lady is pretty, he tells her: “You’re my June,” referring to Cash’s wife.
Govi has come so far.
His first day at the school, he stayed close to Stacy. When he had to go to the nurse’s office, he stood at the doorway and refused to enter. He didn’t feel safe. He didn’t know what would happen to him in that room.
Some days, he’d end up lying on the floor and refuse to budge. Richardson-Thomas, the counselor, called that “one big block of Govi,” and that’s hard to move. He could be quick to anger.
The counselor and the Eastwoods knew something was wrong. Something was happening at school that was triggering his memories. That’s why he was acting out.
Richardson-Thomas came in and spoke with the teachers and other staff. One of her main goals was to help them transition Govi from one place to another. She also explained more of the boy’s background and detailed the triggers that brought back bad memories.
Food can’t be used as a punishment or reward for Govi. No Skittles for good behavior. Don’t refer to Stacy as “mommy” but “mom.” He knew his biological mother as mommy, and if someone talked about going home to see mommy, he’d act out.
And sometimes, Richardson-Thomas told the group, the sound of running water would take Govi back to a time when he would be punished for soiling himself.
Stacy learned this herself one day. She was using a garden hose in the yard, and every time droplets hit Govi, he’d cry out. And when she would help him in the shower, he would be afraid and look up at her.
“I in trouble?” he would ask.
“No,” Stacy would tell him. “You’re not in trouble.”
She and Joe told the school what they’d told everyone in Govi’s world: Set high expectations. No coddling. No spoiling. Help him be the best Govi he can be.
Principal Sandy Hemaya remembers telling staff: “Listen, I know he’s so darn cute, he can melt your heart, but we have to hold him accountable.”
Cheryl Hogan, an aide at the school, has watched him grasp concepts in math and reading and work through his frustrations.
“He doesn’t get special treatment but an understanding of what he’s going through,” she said. “He feels comfortable knowing he is safe here, that we are here to help him.”
The boy who wouldn’t go into the nurse’s office that first day now goes on his own anytime he’s asked. There’s not a room in the school he’s hesitant to enter.
And he now has social skills he lacked when he started at the school: getting along with other kids, looking people in the eye, following rules. School counselor Bianca Mayfield-Miller smiles wide when she thinks of how much he’s grown.
When he walks down the hallway with his class, he looks around and is ready to greet when he sees someone he knows.
“Half the time he beats me to hello,” Mayfield-Miller said. “You can’t look at Govi and not smile.”
Like Govi, the girls had to relive the trauma to work through it. To get stronger, to heal, they had to replay everything and retell it.
For Angel, who was just 5 when Govi was rescued, remembering is still hard.
But now, “we’re a family.”
They live together on land with horses and chickens and a trampoline, and they have parents who help with homework and make sure they get their chores done. It helps her not dwell on her life before.
“I don’t have to think about how it wasn’t good back then.”
Brandee says she’s proud of how far they’ve come. “I had a box shut tight with a whole bunch of things in it. Somebody helped me open it, and I was able to let them go.”
Still, every day, it seems, the past finds a way to creep in.
Govi hasn’t stopped looking up at Stacy during his showers to make sure he isn’t in trouble and to be assured that she still loves him.
He may mention “Mommy Rachel” or become obsessed with food. Stacy admits she can feel frustration when he gobbles down meals and wants to keep eating.
“Then I think, ‘How dare me?’ ” Stacy says. “This little boy almost died, and all he relies on is his first instinct and that’s survival.”
As Stacy and Govi sit at the table on that spring day, she tells him he is protected. Loved.
“I’ll take care of you forever, OK?” she says, and their hands clasp.
“You are,” Govi says as he smiles at her.
“Forever,” the mother tells her son. “And I’ll keep you safe.”
Govi nods: “Oh, yeah.”
He leans over and wraps his arm around her neck.
“Love you,” she says.
“Love you, Mom.”
About this series
Govi’s story is based on interviews with family members, law officers and prosecutors, as well as counselors, doctors and people with CASA. It also draws from court documents, other records and transcripts of hearings for Rachel Perez. The Star tried to contact Perez in prison, but she did not respond.
Reporter Laura Bauer has been a reporter for The Star since January 2005. She often writes about children in need, including LP, the girl who was found locked in a closet. Photojournalist Tammy Ljungblad has been with The Star since 1989.
All videos were edited by Monty Davis, a video journalist for The Star.