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'Never get over what happened': Captives face psychic toll of ordeal

Mark Duncan / AP

Members of the FBI evidence team remove items from a house on Seymour Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio, on Monday after the rescue of three women who went missing separately about a decade ago.

For the three Ohio women held captive for nine years or more, the world had shrunk to a small white house on Cleveland’s Seymour Avenue.

Early reports indicated that locked doors and covered windows kept the women trapped inside the working-class dwelling. Police said they were hostages to the whims of three 50-something brothers -- until 27-year-old Amanda Berry kicked her way to freedom on Monday.

That act alone signals that Berry and the others -- Gina DeJesus, Michelle Knight, and Berry’s 6-year-old child -- might have the gumption and the resilience to recover from the ordeal, say therapists and experts in child trauma.

“It’s a really good sign. It shows a level of maturity and the ability to take positive initiative to escape a captor,” said John Fairbank, co-director of the UCLA-Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.

But, like other longtime captives – think Jaycee Dugard and Elizabeth Smart – the women will need time, support and individual attention to tackle the complex psychological demands of healing, experts said.

As many as half of kidnapping victims experience PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, and about 30 percent suffered from major depression after their ordeals, according to one recent study.

It’s far too early to say how the Cleveland women will respond to the aftermath of the captivity, or to predict individual responses, therapists emphasized. Berry, DeJesus, 23 and Knight, 32, were allegedly held by Ariel Castro and brothers, Onil Castro and Pedro Castro since as early as 2002. Due to the sensitive nature of the situation, police say they haven't fully questioned the women yet. 

If they were psychologically healthy at the time they were abducted, they’ll likely come through OK, but with some common issues, said Herbert Nieburg, an assistant professor of law and justice at Mitchell College in New London, Conn. He specializes in trauma and PTSD and has been an FBI hostage negotiator.

“What we could expect logically is that they’ll have issues of trust, issues of being exploited, issues of being mind-controlled,” Nieburg said.

The women may grapple with questions about whether they tried hard enough to escape, or even whether they bonded in some ways with their captors, a common reaction.

“That’s secondary to the mind control,” Nieburg said. “I would suspect that they were told along the way that if they tried to get away that they would be hurt, or their families would be hurt.”

At the same time, the women will have to make up for missing out on crucial years of development – their teens and young adulthood, said Douglas Goldsmith, executive director of the Children’s Center in Salt Lake City.

“Now they’ve skipped their adolescence. They’re going to be struggling as adults,” he said. “If you listen to the 911 call, Amanda Berry sounded very young. She didn’t sound like a young adult.”

The 6-year-old child will need focused help, too. Though the environment may have been abusive, it is the only world the child has known, experts said. Adjusting to outside society could be a challenge. 

"The key thing is the bond with the mom," said Fairbank.

Dugard, a California woman who was 11 when she was abducted in 1991, spent 18 years living with her captor and had two children conceived by rape. Now 33, she wrote a best-selling memoir in 2011, “A Stolen Life.” On Tuesday, she said that the women’s escape demonstrates their resilience.

“This isn’t who they are,” she said in a statement. “It is only what happened to them.”

Elizabeth Smart was 14 when she was abducted at knifepoint from her Utah bedroom in 2003 and then held for nine months. Now 25, she has since written a book, married, and started a foundation to promote awareness about abduction.

She told ABC News on Tuesday that she was “overjoyed” to hear that the Ohio women were free.

“It’s just proof that there are more happy endings out there,” she said.

But Smart also said that the women will need privacy to heal, “to give them every chance they can to find their own way, to find their pathway back to some sense of healing.”

Therapists and fellow victims alike agreed that the Cleveland woman have taken the first step of what will be a long journey.

“They’ll never get over what happened,” Goldsmith said. “What they have to do is figure out, ‘How do I incorporate this trauma into my life?’” 

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