It has been more than 15 years since then 8-year-old Lauren Kavanaugh was found starving, beaten and imprisoned in a tiny urine-soaked closet.

Now 23, the brave abuse victim has opened up about her crippling flashbacks and struggles with depression as she tries to put her traumatic past behind her - with the support of her girlfriend, Janae Merrill.

"My life's been pretty hard," she says during her special two-part appearance on the Dr Phil Show. "I've been struggling a lot. I hardly sleep anymore. My anxiety is terrible. I have tried to commit suicide over 30 times."

Kavanaugh says she has been left with scars all over her body from the years of abuse. But it's her mental scars that are even harder to heal.


"Sometimes I have flashbacks about my past, my childhood," she said, adding that her years of abuse meant she could not listen to country music without suffering terrible flashbacks.

"I can't listen to country music because that's all they ever played to drown out my screaming. When I hear it, it just all comes back."

Merrill says that before the couple goes to bed she will "baby proof the house" by removing anything sharp that Kavanaugh - who can sometimes turn "very violent" before bed - could hurt herself with.

"If we are somewhere that doesn't have a closet, she will go to the shower, turn on the scalding hot water and sleep in there," she said of Kavanaugh, who admits having struggled with drugs and alcohol addiction, plus severe depression.

A photo of Lauren taken at hospital after her rescue on June 11, 2001. She was no bigger than a 2-year-old.
A photo of Lauren taken at hospital after her rescue on June 11, 2001. She was no bigger than a 2-year-old.

She even made Merrill crash the car by grabbing the steering wheel.

This is the second time Kavanaugh has spoken to Dr Phil. She appeared on the show five years ago, aged 18, when she spoke publicly for the first time about her ordeal.

She recounted the horrors she faced when she was locked away in the tiny closet by her own mother from the age of 2.

"I was locked in a closet for six years. I could not get out, no matter what I did. It was always dark. I didn't get fed. I didn't get to eat.

"I had to go to the bathroom in the closet, where I slept. I had a pillow on the floor and maybe a blanket every now and then if I was good. I would cry until I fell asleep," she said.

Kavanaugh said that the only time she was taken out of the closet was for her parents and their friends to sexually abuse her.

"They took me out of the closet to have sex with me," she said, adding that they would tie her to the bed and rape her until there was "blood all over the sheets".

"When they were done with me, they would beat me and throw me in the closet," she added.

"My mom would bring home guys or girls to have sex with me. If I screamed or yelled, that really made them mad. My parents thought it was hilarious for them to watch. And I had to do what they said, so I could stay alive."

On more than one occasion, she was sure she was going to die.

Kavanaugh described one moment where she said her mother had drowned her until she passed out.

Her stepfather "would get the gun that was beside his bed, put it to my head and pull the trigger, pretending to shoot me".

Although she was just a child at the time, Kavanaugh says she often blames herself for the horrific abuse at the hands of her mother and stepfather.

"I feel like I could have run away when I had the chance, or just did different things," she said.

And her torment didn't end after her rescue. Kavanaugh says she was tormented after she enrolled in college.

"Some players on the football team read my story, and they made fun of me and bullied me and harassed me because of it," she said. The team coach later apologised for his players' behaviour but her tormentors got off with a minor slap on the wrists.

"I was pretty upset that they only got to miss a couple of games and I'm in my dorm room not able to come out 'cause they're still harassing me."

But, with the help of her girlfriend and her own incredible strength, Kavanaugh is finally learning how to put the abuse behind her.

"I'm hoping one day I'll be able to have a normal life," she said in an interview with the Dallas Morning News in 2013. "Of course, my life hasn't ever been normal."

Kavanaugh was nearly 2 when the courts ordered her adoptive parents, Bill and Sabrina Kavanaugh, to hand her back to her biological mother, Barbara Atkinson.

Atkinson, then Barbara Calhoun, had given up Lauren at birth but eight months later the Kavanaughs received a call that she had changed her mind and wanted the little girl back.

During the adoption process, their lawyer had mistakenly never filed the paperwork to terminate Atkinson's parental rights and they lost on the technicality, sending the little girl back to her mother and stepfather, Kenneth.

A picture of Lauren from her early months of living with Sabrina and Bill Kavanaugh, before they lost custody.
A picture of Lauren from her early months of living with Sabrina and Bill Kavanaugh, before they lost custody.

In the following six years, Lauren endured sickening abuse at the hands of the couple, who starved, confined and allegedly raped her and handed her over to other men to sexually abuse.

When she was found in 2001, she weighed just 11.6kg, the size of an average 2-year-old. She was potbellied with malnutrition and doctors had to use a feeding method devised for Holocaust victims.

Investigators said she also suffered years of sexual abuse - leaving her tiny body so badly damaged that she needed a series of reconstructive surgeries - but because it would be too traumatic for the then-8-year-old to testify, they were never convicted of rape.

They did however both receive life sentences for felony injury to a child and will be eligible for parole in 2031, when Lauren is 38.

"I never loved Lauren. I never wanted her," Atkinson told investigators after she was charged. "When my other kids hurt, I hurt. When Lauren hurt, I felt nothing."

"If I had a message for my parents, it would say, 'Rot in jail', because that is where they belong," Kavanaugh said.

Atkinson had six children - with four men - but only Lauren was singled out for the abuse. Kenneth Atkinson later told police she had simply explained the girl was "bad".

When she was found, investigators noted that her legs were red raw from sitting in her urine and faeces, and she had traces of faeces in her mouth. She had been so deprived of nutrition that her bloated stomach lacked the enzymes it needed to digest food.

But as well as physical impairments, she was deprived of stimulation that resulted in brain atrophy, and she missed lessons on emotional development, such as how to trust and give affection.

She did not know how to sit on a chair or use the bathroom. When she was taken outside during her hospital stay, she screamed when she stepped on the grass because she had never felt it before.

But authorities found her large vocabulary curious - and later found out that she had learned how to speak from the country music her mother constantly played to drown out her cries.

Lauren's filthy living conditions were found when her stepfather invited a neighbour inside to show her the little girl locked inside the closet. Authorities suggested this was an act of revenge after his wife started meeting men on the internet and taking off for days at a time.

Fingers have since been pointed in numerous directions as people search for who to blame.

Relatives said they bought Atkinson's explanation that Lauren had an eating disorder as she would gorge when she came to their houses. When they visited Atkinson's home, she always said the little girl was at a friend's house.

The couple's other children said they knew the abuse was going on and would sometimes sneak her food but that they, too, were terrified of their mother and scared of raising the alarm.

Child Protective Services had also been called to the house when neighbours saw the children eating food from the trash - but the parents made Lauren say she was fine.

Kim Higgins, a CPS caseworker, told the Morning News: "There was never a time we went out and saw the kids and saw the home and talked to them and failed to do something. The failure was really on everyone else in these kids' lives."

Despite the extreme trauma, police officers, firefighters and doctors all commented on Lauren's unwavering positive spirit after she was found.

But still, there was struggles. She ate her meals on a tiny picnic table in the hallway of the hospital because she was worried someone would take her food.

She eventually returned to the Kavanaughs' home, where again, they had to deal with the unexpected.

She would sleep in her closet and gorge on food in the night, so they took off her closet doors and left cookies and pink lemonade on the kitchen table.

She cried when she saw a family put suitcases into a car boot because she was often locked in the boot as her former family drove around to collect food, while she lay starving in the back.

Sadly, escaping the Atkinsons was not the end of the abuse: in 2005, case workers encouraged her adoptive mother to relax her tight rein on her daughter and Lauren went to stay with Sabrina Kavanaugh's niece, her husband and their sons.

The following morning, the husband took her outside and sexually assaulted her. He was later jailed for the attack.

She has since endured fits of rage, fights at school, self-harming suicide attempts, and seizures when her body sought to block out the painful memories, particularly of the rapes.

But she said a fight at school was a turning point because she was put in an alternative school and residential therapy, where she met other abuse survivors and learned she was not alone.

"There were a lot of tough years in there," Sabrina Kavanaugh, whose husband Bill died in 2003, told the Morning News. "Sometimes I wasn't sure we were going to make it. But all things considered, Lauren's doing great. I think we may have turned a corner."