The two photographs tell the story of Mary Lou Steff’s journey from misery to happiness.
In the photo snapped the night the 66-year-old developmentally disabled woman was rescued from her brother’s barn, Mary Lou appears dazed, in layers of worn and filthy clothing.
Her hands were blackened with dirt, her face blotched with grime, and a baseball cap covered most of her shorn gray hair. Beneath her eyes were patches of clean skin.
“That’s from when she started to cry when she saw Carl. The tears washed away the dirt,” said Virginia Steff, the wife of Carl Steff, who went with Erie County sheriff’s deputies to take her away that October night last year.
“After the deputies arrived," Virginia Steff recalled, “Mary Lou cried and said, ‘You came and got me. You came and got me.’ ”
In the second photo, Mary Lou is sitting on a love seat with a Jack Russell terrier cuddled beside her. She looks out through a pair of glasses, a necessity denied her after her old glasses broke back at the farm. She smiles into the camera’s lens.
Her gray hair has a touch of color and is feathered and parted to the left. You would be hard-pressed to say the two photos show the same person.
During the six months before she was rescued last fall, Mary Lou’s life was filled with physical abuse and mental torment at the hilltop farm in Springville. She had lived in the farmhouse for decades, most of them under the loving care of her parents. But her life changed after her parents died and she came under guardianship of a younger brother and his wife. Her situation continued to spiral.
Neighbors noticed and finally called authorities. Carl and Virginia Steff, her nephew and his wife, were part of the rescue.
In her new life, there is an abundance of joy – laughing and playing with an 11-year-old great- nephew; shopping trips to the mall for the first time in her life; dancing to rap music at an adult day program and taking Honey, the Jack Russell terrier, for walks and watching deer at the back of her nephew’s Springville farm.
If she is embracing her new life through the eyes of a child, it may be because Mary Lou’s intellectual capacity ranges from that of a 6-year-old to a 10-year-old, relatives say.
But a child does not forget.
Mary Lou remembers being shot with a BB gun, begging for food under the cover of night and living in barns on the family farm. Hot showers, clean clothes and medical care were denied her.
All of this is documented in legal papers that are being used to transfer guardianship of Mary Lou from her brother and his wife to Carl and Virginia Steff. No criminal charges have been filed in the case.
Mary Lou’s story, first told in the weeks after she moved out last fall, continues to illustrate how badly society’s most vulnerable can be treated when those entrusted to care for them fail. Mary Lou’s story, as best she can tell it, provides a disturbing reminder of how the developmentally challenged can be harmed.
Her own words
Sitting at the kitchen table with the Steffs, near the laundry room where that first photograph was taken the night of Oct. 10, Mary Lou speaks in rushed and clipped sentences telling her story, sometimes assisted by Virginia Steff.
She says she does not know why her younger brother banned her from living inside the farmhouse last spring. Their father, Harry, a widower who died in 2002, had told her that the farmhouse would always be her home, too.
Mary Lou, who has difficulty conceptualizing the passage of time, according to Virginia Steff, says that she was content at the farm.
“They treated me pretty good at first. Then it went the other way. ...
“I lived out in the barn. I had a small mattress. But it was burned. Shorty moved me to the garage, and I slept in a chair. I had blankets, but Shorty took one and put it in the goat pen.
“Shorty said he was going to burn my pillow.”
Her shoulders go up in a rapid shrug. “He was just mad,” she said.
A neighbor sometimes fed her hot meals and sent her home with snacks. “I’d get crackers, raisins and pop,” she said.
Attempts by a cousin to visit Mary Lou were rejected, and neighbors became concerned after seeing her wandering the rural highway. Eventually, a neighbor contacted authorities, and Adult Protective Services began an investigation. But the decision whether to leave was left to Mary Lou.
“The caseworker told Mary Lou that, if she felt her life was in danger, she should leave,” Virginia Steff said. “Carl and I had told her that she could always come and live with us. We told her that seven years ago.”
Making the move
The night of Oct. 8, Mary Lou slipped through the darkness to the neighbor who had fed her meals and snacks, and asked if she would make a phone call. The neighbor dialed the number and handed the phone to Mary Lou.
“Is Carl there?” she asked.
Not quite familiar with the voice that kept asking for her husband, Virginia Steff answered: “ ‘He’s out in the barn.’ ”
“ ‘I come live with you. I come live with you,’ ” the voice said.
Suddenly Virginia realized it was Mary Lou.
“I said, ‘Yes, but we have to do this legal. We have to call someone.’ Mary Lou said she had a phone number for the caseworker, and she gave it to the neighbor to give to me. It was on a piece of paper,” Virginia Steff said.
Two nights later, a caseworker and three Erie County sheriff’s deputies arrived at the farm and informed Mary Lou’s brother that she was leaving. A legal process had been started to transfer guardianship to Carl and Virginia Steff.
With just the clothes on her back and a few prized possessions Mary Lou climbed into her nephew’s pickup for a 15-minute ride to the other side of Springville.
Once there, the Steffs realized Mary Lou was suffering from medical problems.
“The next morning, her legs were as hard as rocks, and her feet were as big as footballs,” Virginia Steff said. “We went to the emergency room. Mary Lou had cellulitis. They gave her water pills and antibiotics.”
A physical examination with X-rays was performed, and a doctor noticed healed fractures to her ribs.
“Mary Lou doesn’t remember hurting herself,” Virginia said, “but it must have hurt.”
She also had asthma and was in a state of malnourishment, and, to the family’s shock, no past medical records for her could be found.
Over the past several months, the 5-foot, 2-inch woman has put on 30 pounds and now weighs about 150 pounds.
As Mary Lou’s story unfolded at the kitchen table in her nephew’s home, Carl Steff found himself often unable to join in the conversation. His wife later explained why.
“It still deeply upsets him to hear what happened to her,” Virginia Steff said of her husband, a farmer and school bus driver.
But their 11-year-old son, Toby, spoke of how he and Mary Lou are like brother and sister. To prove it, Toby took out a small hook rug he is making of a black and white panda’s face and patiently instructed Mary Lou on how to move the yarn on the hooking needle.
“I’m also teaching Mary Lou to say the alphabet, we’re up to a, b, c, d, e, f, and we’re working on the rest,” the Springville Middle School sixth-grader said. “We ... watch movies and eat popcorn.”
And while Toby is at school, Mary Lou goes to Suburban Adult Services Inc.’s weekday program, often on field trips to the mall, an animal shelter and helping deliver food to shut-ins with Meals on Wheels.
But her favorite activity with the adult care program is dancing. “One of the girls likes rap,” Mary Lou said.
At home, she spends time with crayons and coloring books, or takes 7-year-old Honey out for walks.
There are also family reunions, meeting great-nieces and great-nephews for the first time, and spending time with two other brothers and a sister, who years ago fought unsuccessfully for custody of her when their father died.
“That was quite a reunion when she saw her brothers Bert and Harold and sister Agnes, after all those years,” Virginia Steff said. Mary Lou’s life has turned around completely.
With Toby beside her as they continue to work on their hook art, Mary Lou taps a finger on the kitchen table and says: “This is home now.”