2001Breaking News Reporting

Boy will cope with scare, experts say

Psychologists: Healing harder for Miami kin
By: 
Paul Brinkley-Rogers
April 23, 2000

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Two images, one day. Photos showing a terrified Elian Gonzalez torn from the arms of his Miami relatives in the dark, and less than four hours later photos of a happy-looking Elian hugging his dad on an air base near Washington, D.C.

Can a child easily make such an adjustment from fear to joy, and cope with being wrenched from a loving family screaming out his name?

Surprisingly, mental health professionals who have been intimately involved in the Elian saga say that most children handle trauma that horrifies adults much more easily than their elders do. They say it will be Elian's Miami relatives who have the most difficulty healing.

Dr. Marvin Dunn, chairman of the psychology department at Florida International University, said that Elian ''will probably do very well in the long run. He's with his dad. Six-year-olds do not linger on this kind of thing. . . . In fact, I think he'll be fine in a matter of hours.''

Dunn, a defender of Attorney General Janet Reno, said the sudden appearance of paramilitary agents ''was a traumatic experience for the boy.

''But children are very resilient,'' he said. ''They cope with death and terrible accidents. Children are different.''

DISSENTING VOICE

A dissenting voice among the experts was Dr. Antonio Gordon, of the Nova Southeastern University faculty. He was one of several members of Miami's Finlay Institute -- a group that counsels Caribbean people -- who met Elian at the invitation of his Miami relatives.

Gordon said that he was so disturbed by the police action that he telephoned Florida's child abuse hot line.

''They were unable to channel the report of the abuse,'' he said, ''because they said the abuse was committed by law enforcement officers.''

Dr. Jerry Wiener, professor emeritus in psychiatry at George Washington University, was one of three experts chosen by the government to advise on how to reunite father and son.

''Nobody who sees this picture can help but be disturbed,'' he said of the photo with the officer with the gun. ''Elian is obviously very frightened.''

'POSITIVE REUNION'

Elian and his baby brother

Elian holds his half-brother, Hianny, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., on Saturday.

But ''Elian calmed down very quickly,'' Wiener said, after being briefed by officials. ''He behaved well, had an easy trip, and had a positive reunion with his father.''

''What happened this morning alone would not have a long-term upsetting affect on him,'' Wiener said. ''He'll spend a few days with his father at the Air Force base, and then longer time in a more stable setting.''

Dr. Lourdes Rigual-Lynch, director of mental health at the Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, was in Miami last week to try to get Elian's relatives to turn over the child.

''We have to distinguish between what is traumatic, and what is frightening,'' she said of the experience Elian underwent. ''More traumatic was losing his mother. More frightening was what happened this morning.''

SCRIPT-WRITING

Rigual-Lynch said she helped write the ''script'' used by the Spanish-speaking woman agent who carried Elian out of the house. ''Yes, it was very scary for a few minutes, but soon he is going to feel very good that he is with his father.''

Dr. Janice Perlman, a New York City pediatric psychiatrist, said that even if Elian bounces back from Saturday's experience, he still must come to terms with all that has happened since he was found in the ocean in November.

''He has to make peace with all of that,'' Perlman said. ''The death of his mother. His intense effort to bond with and please his Miami relatives. The weeks of fame. The sudden separation from Marisleysis.''

Dr. Jon Shaw, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Miami, said the Miami family will probably have a much harder time than Elian in the coming weeks.

''They are outraged,'' he said. ''They invested so much religiosity in the child, and now that this child is taken away from them you can imagine this family's suffering. It is a kind of combat exhaustion.''

Shaw said that being with his father again is best for Elian. ''You have to put this brief moment [the raid] in context,'' he said. ''Elian has been an emotional hostage for complex propaganda.''

He said he is not surprised by photos showing Elian hugging his father. The boy's smiles during his Miami stay were only ''a Band-Aid'' for the loss of his mother, he said. STRESSFUL

Dr. Alan Delameter, a pediatric psychologist at the University of Miami, said that being snatched out of the Little Havana house was stressful for Elian. ''But did it cause irreparable harm? No.''

More damaging, Delameter said, was the growing siege mentality of the final weeks, and the often noisy round-the-clock protests.

Father and son have a special duty now, Delameter said.

''Elian's task, and his father's task, is to reestablish their relationship. Elian will want to be with his father. This is the caregiver he has had since he was a very young child. This is what is good for him''


Herald staff writer Frances Robles contributed to this report.