The Horrific Abuse Of Lauren Kavanaugh, The Texas Girl Who Grew Up In A Closet

Published August 26, 2022
Updated March 11, 2024

Dubbed the "Girl in the Closet," Lauren Kavanaugh was isolated and abused mentally, physically, and sexually by her mother and stepfather between the ages of two and eight.

On June 11, 2001, police officers arrived at the home of Kenneth and Barbara Atkinson in Hutchins, Texas. They’d received a call that Barbara’s daughter, eight-year-old Lauren Kavanaugh, was being abused, but nothing could prepare them for what they saw when they walked inside.

Lauren Kavanaugh

Dallas County District Attorney’s OfficeLauren Kavanaugh was eight years old and weighed just 25.6 pounds when she was rescued in 2001.

The first officer on the scene thought that Kavanaugh was a toddler because she was so small. The young girl was rushed to a hospital in Dallas, where horrified doctors found that she was the size of the average two-year-old. Officials quickly began investigating how this possibly could have happened — and the truth was far worse than anyone expected.

Lauren Kavanaugh had been locked in a closet for six years, and the Atkinsons only took her out to sexually abuse and torture her. Her organs were shutting down from starvation, and her lower body was red and peeling from sitting in her own urine and feces for months at a time.

Many experts believed she would never lead anything close to a normal life, but Kavanaugh stunned everyone when she graduated from high school in 2013. Though she constantly struggles with the trauma of the unspeakable abuse she suffered at the hands of her own mother and has even faced legal issues of her own, Kavanaugh continues to try to move on from her past as “the girl in the closet.”

Lauren Kavanaugh’s Birth, Adoption, And Return To Her Biological Mother

Lauren Kavanaugh was born on April 12, 1993, but her mother, Barbara, had already decided to give her up for adoption. Sabrina Kavanaugh, the woman who hoped to raise Lauren, was in the delivery room, and she later recalled how excited she and her husband were to welcome the baby into their home.

“That was the happiest day of our lives,” Sabrina said. “We loved her before she was born, I guess you would say. We had a room for her and her little clothes. It was awesome.”

Lauren Kavanaugh As A Baby

Dallas County District Attorney’s OfficeLauren Kavanaugh was a happy baby until her biological mother, Barbara Atkinson, regained custody of her in 1995.

Sabrina had been introduced to 21-year-old Barbara several months earlier, soon after she’d discovered she was pregnant. They met up numerous times leading up to Lauren’s birth, discussing the logistics of the adoption. “She was certain she wanted to give it up,” Sabrina remembered. “She didn’t even know who the father was.”

For the next eight months, Sabrina and her husband Bill raised Lauren like she was their own. But one day, they received a notice that Barbara was filing a petition for custody of the infant. It turned out that the Kavanaughs’ lawyer had never filed the paperwork to terminate Barbara’s parental rights — and she was determined to take Lauren back.

Doris Calhoun, Barbara’s mother, told The Dallas Morning News, “Barbie had every right to change her mind. A mother who makes a choice to give up a child has not abandoned that child — it is a loving choice. That’s a caring choice, it’s a wonderful choice, and she is a great person to have made that choice.”

The court soon awarded Barbara and her new husband, Kenneth Atkinson, more and more time with Lauren. For the next year, the Kavanaughs had to slowly give up the child they’d raised as their daughter even though they believed the Atkinsons were abusing her.

At one point, Sabrina Kavanaugh noticed that the area under Lauren’s diaper was bright red. “I don’t think it was diaper rash,” she recalled. “I think Kenny was already sexually abusing her because she wouldn’t let us touch that diaper.”

Mugshot Of Barbara Atkinson

Public DomainBarbara Atkinson and her husband Kenneth were eventually sentenced to life in prison for the abuse of Barbara’s daughter Lauren.

Sabrina took Lauren to the hospital, but doctors refused to perform a rape kit. The Kavanaughs then submitted 45 photos to the judge as evidence, but he told them, “You’re doing more harm to this baby with all these pictures than that mother is ever going to do.”

In 1995, Judge Lynn E. Markham awarded the Atkinsons permanent custody of Lauren. For the next six years, the little girl would face unimaginable abuse.

The Torturous Life Of “The Girl In The Closet”

After Lauren Kavanaugh was rescued from the Atkinson home in 2001, doctors testified that she’d stopped growing around the age of two — the very same age she was when she was returned to her biological mother.

Detective Sergeant David Landers told The Dallas Morning News, “It started out with Barbie just putting Lauren next to her on the floor on a pallet. But Lauren would get up and go into the other room and get into stuff, so Barbie started putting her in the closet with a little gate across it.”

“Then, when Lauren got old enough to push it down, Barbie just shut the door.”

The Closet Lauren Kavanaugh Lived In

Dallas County District Attorney’s OfficeThe carpet of the closet that Lauren Kavanaugh was forced to live in for years was so soaked in urine that the police officers’ shoes got soaked in it as they were investigating.

For the first few years, Lauren was still taken to family events with her other five siblings. Barbara’s mother Doris later recalled that Lauren constantly tried to eat anything she could find when she was at her house, and Barbara told her that Lauren had an eating disorder.

But after Thanksgiving 1999, when Lauren was six years old, Doris stopped seeing her. Barbara always said she was at a friend’s house, and Doris never questioned it.

In reality, Lauren Kavanaugh was locked in her mother’s closet, surviving on cold soup, crackers, and tubs of butter that her older sister sometimes sneaked in to her. On the rare occasions she was allowed to leave the closet, she endured even worse torture than the loneliness she faced inside.

Both Kenneth and Barbara Atkinson sexually abused the young girl starting when she was just a toddler. Lauren’s sister, Blake Strohl, remembered hearing the girl’s screams from the bedroom and thinking her parents were hitting her.

When the Atkinsons weren’t raping Lauren themselves, they rented her out to pedophiles. The first Halloween after her rescue, Lauren screamed when she saw someone dressed as a clown and asked, “Are you taking me to the Candyman’s house?” One of the men who regularly raped her had always worn a clown mask and called himself the Candyman.

Lauren Kavanaugh faced agonizing physical abuse from her mother and stepfather as well. On the rare occasions that she bathed Lauren, Barbara would hold her head under the running faucet until she couldn’t breathe, laughing the whole time.

Lauren Kavanaugh The Night She Was Rescued

Facebook/Morbidology PodcastLauren Kavanaugh on June 11, 2001, the night she was rescued.

She would also place a bowl of macaroni and cheese in front of the starving child and tell her, “Chew it, but don’t swallow.” Though Kenneth and Barbara had five other children who faced various forms of abuse, Lauren was the only one who was regularly denied food and locked away.

Barbara later told Child Protective Services, “I never loved Lauren. I never wanted her. When my other kids hurt, I hurt. When Lauren hurt, I felt nothing.”

After six years of constant abuse, Kenneth Atkinson decided to tell someone about Lauren. Whether it was due to a sudden change of heart or a vicious act of revenge after he found out Barbara was cheating on him is unclear, but in June 2001, Lauren’s long life of solitary confinement finally came to an end.

The Emotional Rescue Of Lauren Kavanaugh

On June 11, 2001, Kenneth Atkinson told his neighbor Jeanie Rivers that he needed to show her something. He took her to the bedroom closet, opened the door, and revealed the secret that he and Barbara had been keeping for over half a decade.

Rivers later said, “What I pictured was a monster, a little bitty monster. She was so frail and without color. Her arms, they appeared to be no bigger than an inch wide to me. She was naked.”

Lauren Kavanaugh In The Hospital After Her Rescue

Dallas County District Attorney’s OfficeLauren Kavanaugh remained in the hospital for five weeks after she was rescued.

Rivers and her husband called the police, who rushed to the home. Gary McClain, the first officer on the scene, later said, “I walk in and I’m looking for an eight-year-old, except I saw what looked like a three-year-old sitting there. So, I immediately ask, ‘Where’s Lauren?'”

The young girl was covered in cigarette burns and puncture wounds, and she complained about the bugs in her hair. When police asked her how old she was, she replied that she was two, “because that’s how many birthday parties I’ve had.”

At the hospital, doctors discovered that she weighed just 25.6 pounds. Her esophagus was clogged with plastic, carpet fibers, and feces, and her genitals were so mutilated from the years of sexual abuse that her vagina and anus were only one opening. She required multiple reconstructive surgeries to repair the damage.

One doctor said of Lauren: “We’ve had children who’ve been beaten. We’ve had children who have been starved. We’ve had children who’ve been sexually abused and neglected and psychologically abused. But we’ve never had a child who’s had it all.”

Because she’d been locked in a closet during her most important developmental years, Lauren’s brain had atrophied, and most experts didn’t think she would ever live a normal life. Dr. Barbara Rila, a Dallas psychologist who treated Lauren soon after her rescue, later said, “If you would have asked me then, I would have told you there was very little future and hope for this youngster. I’d never seen a child who was so very broken physically and emotionally.”

Bill And Sabrina Kavanaugh With Lauren

YouTubeBill and Sabrina Kavanaugh with Lauren during her recovery.

But thanks to the work of Bill and Sabrina Kavanaugh, Lauren’s original adoptive parents, the “girl in the closet” soon started to experience life outside of her four-by-eight-foot box.

Lauren’s Reunion With The Kavanaughs And Her Long Road To Recovery

When the Kavanaughs heard what had happened, they quickly reached out to see if they could adopt Lauren again. The first time the eight-year-old saw them, she asked, “Is this my new mom and dad?”

Lauren struggled to adjust to her new life. She wasn’t potty trained, she didn’t know how to use a fork or a spoon, and she carefully guarded her food because she was afraid someone would take it from her. The first time she went outside barefoot, she screamed that bugs were biting her feet — because she’d never felt grass before.

But the Kavanaughs worked closely with Lauren and her therapists, and in July 2002, 13 months after Lauren was rescued from the Atkinson home, Bill and Sabrina Kavanaugh officially adopted her.

Lauren’s life has not been easy since then. She struggles with her mental health, she was raped by her cousin’s husband when she was 12, and she was arrested in 2018 for sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl herself, according to CBS News. She was found unfit to stand trial, and she was ordered to be committed to a mental health institution.

Sabrina And Lauren Kavanaugh

YouTubeLauren Kavanaugh with her adoptive mother, Sabrina.

Meanwhile, Kenneth and Barbara Atkinson are both spending life in prison for felony injury to a child, according to PEOPLE.

Through it all, Lauren has tried to learn from her tragic experience. “I don’t want to be like my parents,” she told The Dallas Morning News. “That’s my focus. I have that fear of turning out like them, because every day I feel it. I have that rage inside like my mother. The only difference is, I’m trying to control it.”

After reading about the tragic abuse of Lauren Kavanaugh, discover the haunting story of Genie Wiley, the “Feral Child”. Then, go inside the horrific story of Elisabeth Fritzl, the Austrian woman whose father locked her in a basement for 24 years and forced her to bear his children.

Jessica OConnor
Jessica O'Connor is a public historian focusing on Deep South Black History with degrees from Winston-Salem State University and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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O'Connor, Jessica. "The Horrific Abuse Of Lauren Kavanaugh, The Texas Girl Who Grew Up In A Closet.", August 26, 2022, Accessed May 28, 2024.