Rachel and her twin sister Jennifer were born to Albert and Laurie Ann (Bailey) Vacca who met while they were both serving in the Army. While their older brother and sister, and their pet Rottweiler, were raised with some degree of normalcy, the infant twins were maltreated. They were found home alone by Jefferson County Sheriff's deputy Marsha Allen in 1989 and Children's Hospital workers found signs of abuse when they were admitted in August 1990. The next year, day care workers at East Lake United Methodist Church noted that the three-year olds would arrive on Monday in the same diapers they had worn home on Friday. Those incidents were reported to the Jefferson County Department of Human Resources (DHR) to little effect. When the story reached the media, reforms of DHR were undertaken, but the girls were still returned to their parents. When the family moved, former landlords discovered rooms soiled with human waste and prospective new landlords were introduced to a family of four, rather than six. The twins were kept locked in a bedroom to fend for themselves, deprived of food and companionship.
Unable to keep up with rent and more than $73,000 in debts, the Vaccas declared bankruptcy in May 1993. Laurie drove the twins to the DHR and tried to give them up, but was turned away. The Vaccas, who hadn't paid rent since February, were evicted from a house on Carnation Drive in Roebuck Gardens in July. Albert took the older siblings with him to Trafford and told investigators he assumed Laurie would take the twins, then five years old, and move in with her mother in Greensboro.
By chance the landlord, Lee Hutto, happened to see Rachel's face peering out a window when he came to cut the grass. Unable to get into the room, he called police, who broke in and retrieved the starving girls. They were found shackled with toy handcuffs and abandoned in the locked room with a few blankets and a plastic tarp, all soiled with waste. They each weighed about 18 pounds and were taken immediately to Children's Hospital. Hutto called Lauria Vacca at the Red Lobster where she then worked, luring her to the house where she was detained by neighbors and soon arrested. Albert, who had been fired from his job as a nurse at Baptist Medical Center Montclair, was questioned up by the Trafford Police Department. The horrifying and sensational news gripped the city for weeks.
Sherri Hood, a newly-approved emergency shelter foster parent, accepted the girls into her care when they were released from the hospital and gradually nursed them to physical and emotional health. Judge Elise Barclay ordered that DHR place the children for adoption. The Vaccas surrendered their parental rights in February 1994 after several legal actions. Several volunteers offered to adopt the four Vacca children all together, including Chick-Fil-A founder Truett Cathy (who would have placed them in a group home he had founded in Randolph County). Hood, however, was committed to raising the twins as her own and, with assistance from attorney Martha Jane Patton, petitioned Barclay for custody. After a nine-day trial, the wins were placed in her care. The older siblings were later adopted by a Vestavia Hills woman, but visited with the girls and their "Aunt Sherri" regularly until adolescence.
The Vaccas were indicted for attempted murder and child abuse. Laurie pleaded guilty to both charges and Albert pleaded "best interest" (legally equivalent to "no contest") to spare his former daughters the possibility of being subpoenaed to testify. In sentencing them, Judge James Garrett dismissed the attempted murder charges as unsupported by the evidence. Albert served 13 years of his two concurrent 20-year sentences. Laurie served four years of her two consecutive 10-year sentences. They divorced and have since moved away from Birmingham.
Rachel played sports in school and moved out of Hood's home while she was a senior at Clay-Chalkville High School. She researched her childhood and met once with her birth mother in South Alabama, but has sought no other contact with her. Knowing that she wanted to help people, Rachel worked as a YMCA counselor and, at age 20, applied for the Birmingham Police Academy. She is currently a patrol officer assigned to the East Precinct.
- Pierson, Marla (August 2, 1993) "Little girls' plight stuns neighbors." Birmingham News
- Garrison, Greg (August 3, 1993) "State knew about alleged neglect of twins for years." Birmingham News
- Dedrick, Patricia (August 3, 1993) "Vaccas struck rock bottom on problems." Birmingham News
- Visser, Steve (August 4, 1993) "Vacca children stay in foster care." Birmingham News
- Vickery, Scottie (September 15, 1993) "Vacca twins gaining weight." Birmingham News
- Visser, Steve (November 14, 1993) "Adoption ordered for Vacca children: Judge bars parents from visiting kids." Birmingham News
- Visser, Steve (February 14, 1994) "Foster mother seeks to adopt Vacca twins." Birmingham News
- Visser, Steve (April 8, 1994) "Cathy says he's ready to take 4 Vaccas home." Birmingham News
- Visser, Steve (April 13, 1994) "Judge awards Vacca twins to foster mom." Birmingham News
- VIsser, Steve (May 8, 1994) "'Not the same girls': Thanks to a loving foster mother, the Vacca twins bear little resemblance to the hungry, abused kids rescued from near death 10 months ago." Birmingham News
- Troncale, Terri (May 31, 1995) "Vacca twins' ordeal should be a lesson." Birmingham News
- Visser, Steve (July 1, 1995) "Vaccas get 20 years for abusing children." Birmingham News
- Robinson, Carol (December 12, 2010) "From nightmare to new life and hope: Child rescued from terror is now policewoman." Birmingham News