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.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
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.
My first thought was, ‘Oh my God, how is this kid still alive?’
Chris Brown, former Johnson County prosecutor
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.
We jumped in eyes wide shut and hearts wide open.
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?
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 and photo journalist Tammy Ljungblad spent time with Govi over a period of several months.
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. Ljungblad has been with The Star since 1989.
All videos were edited by Monty Davis, a video journalist for The Star.
Support for children with Down syndrome
Coming tomorrow: Govi’s journey