Giovanni finds hope, family after attic trauma in De Soto

From near death to full of life

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - It was one of the worst cases of child abuse in the Kansas City area.

The date was Aug. 17, 2010. Sheriff's deputies were dispatched to a home in De Soto at 2:30 in the afternoon to check on the welfare of the children living there.

Officers talked to the mom, Rachel Perez, but could not find the children. They made note of the home's condition - "not suitable for living".

There was "an overwhelming odor of urine and feces."

The house was "littered with trash" and officers observed "feces on the carpeted floor."

Rachel Perez, mother of two girls and a boy, was taken into custody on outstanding municipal warrants. She said nothing about any children being in the home.

Eight and a half hours later, deputies returned to the home. Perez's grandmother had called them because she had her two granddaughters with her, but she did not know the location of her grandson, Giovanni. The grandmother told deputies one of the girls had said Govi might be hiding in the Perez house.

Deputies entered the home through a window that night and started calling the little boy's name. They heard a noise. It seemed to be coming from the attic.

Court documents describe what happened next:

"Officers had to access the attic through a hatch approximately eight feet in the air, and there was no ladder or climbing apparatus anywhere near the hatch. Upon opening the wooden hatch, Giovanni stuck his head out. The child was completely emaciated and had open wounds, feces and urine all over his body. The attic was a crawl space which contained broken wood and sheetrock, exposed nails, and insulation. It appeared as though the child hadn't eaten in days and most of his bones were visible."

Giovanni, called Govi for short, was taken to the hospital that night. He was three weeks shy of his seventh birthday.

He weighed 18.7 pounds - less than an average 8-month-old baby. He had Down Syndrome and many medical complications from the neglect and abuse.

Foster mom steps in to help

In Osawatomie, Kan., a mom watched the breaking news on television.

She had fostered dozens of children before that day, and the boy's story on TV made her want to help. She called her friends and the agency normally responsible for placing foster children. She asked if they were watching. They talked about what was happening. That mom, Jenny Weaver, made a decision right then. She wanted to help these kids.

"Something about his story just really grabbed my heart," Weaver said as she fought back tears. "I wanted him in my home."

By that night, the girls were sitting in her home. Govi, though, had to stay in the hospital.

The girls, 8-year-old Brandee and 5-year-old Angel, seemed content at first. They tried to say and do the right things.

A few days went by, and the trauma started to show itself. Angel would wake in the middle of the night crying.

The girls started school. Angel was quiet and timid; Brandee was better at making conversation but had a tough time making friends.

As the girls tried to adjust, Weaver was trying to build a relationship with Govi in the hospital. She would go at feeding times, so she could take him his food.

At first, Govi didn't want anything do with Weaver.

"When I first walked in (to his hospital room), immediately Govi pointed at me with his little finger and said, 'You! Goin' away!'" recalled Weaver.

Slowly, Weaver built trust with Govi. After about a week and a half in the hospital he went home with Weaver.

While Govi was happy in the new home, he struggled to adjust to a life of acceptance and normalcy.

He had a bed to sleep in, but would often move to the hardwood floor where he was more comfortable, since that was presumably where he had slept at his previous home.

He hoarded clothes and wanted to sleep wearing his shoes.

At one point, someone tried to give Govi a high-five and he flinched and cowered and said, "No hit! No hit!"

Running bath water, spraying Lysol…Weaver never could have known those things would be triggers, but they were.

Govi's relatives fight for the children

In Kansas City North, another family made a decision the day Govi was found in the attic.

Stacy Eastwood, Govi's aunt, got a call that day. Eastwood had reported mistreatment of the children before and had been cut off by their parents. Govi and Brandee had even stayed with Eastwood and her husband, Joe, for a short while early in their lives.

On the call that day, Eastwood was told Govi had been found in the attic and probably would not survive.

As Stacy and Joe Eastwood laid in bed that night, they talked about the days news and decided - right then - they were going to fight to provide a home for these three children. The couple's two boys, Spencer and Tucker, also wanted to help. The brothers had already schemed up a plan for sleeping arrangements if the mistreated children came to live with them.

The kids moved from Jenny Weaver's home to the Eastwood home in January of 2011. The transition period was several months long, starting with short supervised visits, before growing into longer, overnight stays.

The kids have very active lives now. They go to regular therapy sessions to help them cope and continue to cope with memories and the transition from their past life to this new life.

Brandee, now 10 years old, is a budding artist. She loves to draw and share her artwork. She is also a reader - most recently the Harry Potter series. She is outspoken and works really hard to do well in school.

Angel will be 7 later this month and is still quiet, but she's growing more talkative by the day. She excels at gymnastics and cheerleading. She seemed afraid of affection when she first came to live with the Eastwood family, but soon worked through that. She now gives hugs and cuddles up beside her new parents.

Govi is now 8 and is active in gymnastics and wrestling. He first saw a wrestling match when he went to watch Spencer and Tucker at a wrestling meet. He was hooked.

Govi's wrestling coach, Coach Keck at Park Hill, says he can imagine a day when Govi is a strong competitor, perhaps leading the way for other children with Down Syndrome to compete in wrestling.

Life with the Eastwoods

After 17 months of living with the Eastwoods, going to therapy, shuttling to school and practices, living as a family with them, the adoption was finalized in Johnson County District Court May 9, 2012.

Judge Kathleen Sloan talked briefly before signing the paperwork and reading out the kids' new last names.

She talked about how rare it is to come into a courtroom happy and leave happier, that oftentimes the reasons for being there don't leave those in attendance reason to smile.

There wasn't a dry eye in the courtroom as Judge Sloan declared the adoption final.

As Stacy, Joe, Spencer, Tucker, Brandee, Angel and Govi made their way to the front of the courtroom to pose for pictures with a visibly happy Judge Sloan, everyone rose to their feet in a standing ovation, wiping tears from wet eyes.

Outside the courtroom, the family released a handful of balloons, one of which had the words "NO MORE ABUSE" on it. Govi held that balloon.

On the count of three, they released the balloons, which faded into the cloudless blue sky.

You can follow Govi's continued progress on his newly-created facebook page, Govi's Army. It will be a place to follow the progress of the little boy once pulled from an attic who now lives this new life - happy, well-fed, and safe.

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