Court Guardian Argued That Closet Girl's Mother Was Unfit Eight Years Ago

A court-appointed guardian told a judge eight years ago in Texas' Ellis County that Barbara Catherine Atkinson was an unfit parent and that her baby should remain with the East Texas couple attempting to adopt her.

Despite the testimony, the judge returned the girl to her biological mother, saying the woman's parental rights had not been terminated.

"It is devastating because it could have been prevented," said Dallas attorney Kamela Cromer-Wilkinson, the court-appointed guardian. "It was 100 percent absolutely avoidable."

The girl, now 8, was rescued Monday after being locked in a mobile home closet for at least four months and nearly starved. The mother and a stepfather are charged with serious injury to a child.

Barbara Atkinson remained Thursday in the Dallas County jail in lieu of $100,000 bond. Her ex-husband, Kenneth Ray Atkinson, will not be released on bond because he also faces charges of probation violation out of Ellis County, police said.

Altogether, five other children in the couple's Hutchins home have been placed in foster care by Child Protective Services.

Brad Lollar, the court-appointed defense attorney for Barbara Atkinson, said he has talked only briefly with his client. He said Hurst police should not have released crime scene photos to the media.

"That jeopardizes a defendant's right to have an unbiased trial and grand jury," he said.

The court had not yet appointed a lawyer for Kenneth Atkinson.

The woman, whose name at the time was Barbara Calhoun, had one other child at the time that Cromer-Wilkinson recommended that Lauren Ashley Calhoun be placed with adoptive parents.

The lawyer, who was a neutral court representative, said she had a "feeling" that Atkinson did not want the child back.

"Her home life was unstable. It was not nurturing," Cromer-Wilkinson said. She said the baby should have been allowed to remain with the couple who took custody of her at birth and wanted to keep her.

Bill and Sabrina Kavanaugh, who live near Canton, had arranged for a private adoption and took custody of Lauren at birth on April 13, 1993. Atkinson was a friend of the second wife of Bill Kavanaugh's brother-in-law.

But soon afterward, Atkinson changed her mind and demanded the girl back.

The Kavanaughs were able to retain exclusive rights to Lauren for about nine months, but the courts limited their contact thereafter. After eight months of judicial struggles, a second judge ordered the girl's return to her birth mother.

"The attorney we used messed up, and we did not obtain paternal rights," said Bill Kavanaugh, 62. "We fought her in court and lost. We lost on a technicality."

The last time Bill and Sabrina Kavanaugh saw Lauren, she was an energetic, healthy 2-year-old who loved the outdoors and movies, he said.

The couple is haunted by a new image -- the girl who law officers found six years later in a filthy trailer. Police say the girl weighed only 25 pounds, with her skin peeling and stomach bloated from malnutrition.

Kavanaugh said Lauren was a typical toddler. Thumbing through old photos of the couple with Lauren, Kavanaugh stopped at one of a smiling child on their farm for her first Christmas.

"She was very normal," he said. "You can see how well she was progressing."

The couple said they never gave up hope that they'd see Lauren again, and want to regain custody.

The girl remains in serious but stable condition at Children's Medical Center, CPS spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner said.

She is suffering malnutrition and underwent surgery Tuesday, but Meisner said privacy laws don't allow her to disclose further details about Lauren's condition.

"We are very hopeful she will continue to improve," she said. "Lauren has already shown she is a survivor."

CPS has not attempted to interview the girl because of her frail health.

Meisner said Lauren may have spent time over years in a 4- by 8-foot closet littered with human waste and soiled clothing. Not only is she a foot smaller than most children her age, but court documents state that she has the communication skills of a 3-year-old.

Barbara Atkinson told others that Lauren had an eating disorder and was staying with a baby sitter, police said.

The girl's siblings will be interviewed and videotaped by CPS investigators, Meisner said. The girls, ages 5, 6, and 10, are in one foster home; the boys, ages 23 months and 3 years, are in another.

She said the five are doing well and are not malnourished, but are saddened by the absence of their parents.

None of the children attended school last year, and may never have been enrolled, Meisner said.

A juvenile court judge is scheduled to decide on June 26 if the children, including Lauren, should be placed with relatives or remain in CPS custody.

Meisner would not say which relatives have expressed interest in housing the children, but said none of the fathers of Lauren or the children had been located. Kenneth Atkinson was the father of several of the younger children.

The case will be presented to a criminal grand jury, said Steve Tokoly, an assistant district attorney for Dallas County. Conviction of injury to a child carries a penalty of up to life in prison.

Dave Landers, chief of the Hutchins Police Department, said the Atkinsons have expressed remorse during interviews with officers.

CPS has received hundreds of calls from citizens wanting to help the children, Meisner said. The case is one of the most horrific that Dallas County case workers have investigated, she said.

"My heart absolutely broke for this child," Meisner said. "I can't describe how frail and small she was."

The Associated Press contributed to this report