It’s hard to imagine what life must have been like for the Norton* children. On the day county workers arrived at the Nortons’ home, responding to calls from neighbors, they found starving, abused children living in squalor.

Seven-month-old Tess was lying in a cardboard box soaked with urine, her little bottom blistered with diaper rash. The baby appeared not to have moved from the spot in months, and muscles on her right side had atrophied from lying there so long. In the fifth percentile of weight for children her age, she was near death — having been denied both physical and emotional nourishment since birth.

She wasn’t alone. Jeremy, 4, and Adam, 2, knew the same hunger. Fed only the crumbs falling from their parents’ plates, the boys were both malnourished and mistreated. Adam was taunted, beaten and sexually abused by his father. Most beatings came in the evening, as a sort of bedtime ritual for the toddler, and Jeremy would watch in horror, wanting to help but powerless to do so.

Rats ran freely in the home, and the boys became accustomed to sleeping with sticks at night to beat the rodents away from their makeshift beds on the floor.

While their father posed a menacing presence, the children have little recollection of their mother, even though she lived in the same house. What they do remember is that it’s best not to make her angry. Adam did that once, and his dad nearly drowned him, driving him in a pickup truck into a river, just to teach him a lesson.

County workers quickly removed the children and placed them in foster care with Karen White, who has worked closely with Family & Children’s Center since then to try to help the children recover.

While Tess has responded quickly to the love of her new mother and therapy and surgeries are helping restore her physical abilities, the journey has been much more difficult for the two boys. Both entered therapy at Family & Children’s Center, visiting weekly along with their foster mother. Karen and the boys then worked at home to implement what they had learned at the Center.

“A lot of what we do in therapy is work through what the kids need here at home in order to make it go. We need to work through this as a family unit, if we’re going to continue to be a family,” said Karen. “It’s very important to have the service close to home if you’re going to make the family work. It unites everything we’re working on.”

Sometimes feeling overwhelmed and ill-equipped to handle children with such great needs, Karen visited counselors at the Center alone on occasion. “What I liked was that if the counselors did not have an answer for me, they would go to other experts, discuss it and come up with alternative treatment plans that would work,” she said. “I’m constantly getting mail with additional resource materials. They always kept information flowing to me that helped. Just because I wasn’t educated, didn’t mean I couldn’t be educated to help these kids.”

Now, three years later, the children have bonded well with Karen, who has formally adopted them. The children have rules to follow, chores to do, beds to sleep in. Hugs and kisses from each sibling and Mom have replaced beatings as the bedtime ritual, and boundless love and regular meals have sated the children’s constant hunger for emotional and physical sustenance.

“The day I knew I was doing well with these kids was the day I could hear them laugh. The day they had expressions on their faces — be they sad or happy — was something better than that lost stare,” said Karen. “I knew then they would be okay.”

Problems do persist, however, and Karen continues to face new challenges and new questions as she raises her children. But she looks to the future with hope. “Family & Children’s Center has given me so much more than I ever thought was out there. There will always be ongoing help, and I can call them any time. They will still be there. They always will be.”

*All names in this story were changed to protect the privacy of the children.