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.