Photo by Sarah Hoffman, The Dallas Morning News
Solitude. Darkness. Silence. This was Lauren Kavanaugh’s reality for 6 years of her life; she was locked in a closet, starved, neglected and abused by her parents. Even after a detective from the Dallas County Sheriff’s office rescued her on June 11, 2001, Kavanaugh spent years battling her demons in silence. It wasn’t until Kavanaugh met Dallas Morning News reporter Scott Farwell that she was finally able to open up publicly. Her story became his eight-part series “The Girl in the Closet.”
“This was big news in Dallas and around the country, and there had been interest for years about checking back with Lauren but we hadn’t been successful,” Farwell explained.
Farwell contacted Kavanaugh and her adoptive family for almost a year before he finally got through. They agreed to meet with him, and once they got a feel for the story, they were on board. It was the beginning of a year-long process of trust building with Kavanaugh.
The original story sent shockwaves through the nation. The 8-year-old girl, weighing only 25.6 pounds, had been subjected to sexual, mental and physical torture at the hands of her parents. The Children’s Medical Center in Dallas said it was the worst case of child abuse in the hospital’s history.
“The story was really gripping; we decided to take the long form approach,” he says. “The more I learned, the more I came to understand this story had the potential to speak to people on a lot of different levels,”
For a year and a half, Farwell collected research and interviews, gathering as much information as he could about what happened during those dark years.
“In order for folks to understand how remarkable this young girl is, you had to understand what she went through,” he says. “We needed to take the time to reconstruct the crime.”
The series, which was published in print from Oct. 20-27, 2013, also includes an online interactive component. Text, photos and videos are rich in both narrative elements and direct evidence from the case, including photographs of the filth-contaminated closet where Lauren spent much of her childhood. Lawyers, detectives, psychologists and judges on Kavanaugh’s case were all more than willing to open up their files after getting approval from Kavanaugh.
“Any sources in the story spoke to Lauren first before they were willing to speak to me,” he explains. “She encouraged them to go ahead and talk.”
Farwell also conducted interviews with those that were present the night that Lauren was rescued in order to recreate the scene.
“Narrative reporting is a very cinematic approach,” said Farwell. “In order to move the camera around that room, interview as many folks that were in the room as you can,” he suggests.
Getting Kavanaugh to open up about the horror, however, was a different experience. Initially, the 20-year-old was very guarded and staccato in her responses, frequently answering questions simply with “I don’t know.” Farwell spent considerable time with Kavanaugh, playing video games or shooting baskets.
“We would talk for 10 minutes and have fun for five hours,” he recalls. “But I began to understand her a little bit more, I learned more and more details.
It wasn’t until 9 months into the reporting process when Farwell received a call from Kavanaugh one evening that he knew she was ready to talk. He went to her house and spent the next three hours listening to Kavanaugh recount the gruesome details on camera, much of which appears in the piece.
“The video interview that you see online is the product of a year and a half of building trust with Lauren,” Farwell says. “I was blown away by how well she responded to the interview.”
Farwell says that when dealing with victims of abuse, it is extremely important to respect them, and hopefully the coverage of their stories can provide a sense of healing.
“In talking with Lauren’s therapist, family members and her, it seemed like the process itself was therapeutic for her,” he explains. “It was empowering for her to give this abuse a voice and to own it.”
Explore "The Girl in the Closet" from The Dallas Morning News.