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Born into captivity, 6-year-old can recover, experts say

David Maxwell / EPA

The house where Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight, as well as Berry's 6-year-old daughter, were held.

Of the four captives rescued in this week’s hostage drama in Cleveland, the 6-year-old daughter of Amanda Berry may raise the most perplexing questions of all.

The young girl who followed as Berry, 27, kicked her way out of a house where she’d been held in alleged bondage for a decade will face complicated challenges as the youngster learns to navigate an entirely new universe, say child therapists and specialists in long-term trauma.

“For a child born into this situation, this is the only world that child has known,” said Rona Fields, a Washington, D.C., clinical psychologist and author who works with women who seek asylum from trauma.

Even an abusive world can seem normal, especially to a child who police reports indicate was denied typical experiences such as school, health care and play time with other kids.

“When they’re exposed to fear and threats and exploitation of a parent, that has a significant psychological impact on the child’s development and the child’s sense of safety,” said Terri Weaver, a professor of psychology at St. Louis University who specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder and the mental health effects of family violence and sexual assault.

The three women -- Berry, Gina DeJesus, 23, and Michelle Knight, 32 -- reported being bound in ropes and chains, isolated in locked rooms and forced to endure rapes, pregnancies and miscarriages, police said.  It’s not clear whether Berry’s daughter, born in captivity, was also abused. Berry's sister spoke briefly to a throng of reporters on Wednesday, pleading for time for her family to absorb the week's events.

"I just want to say we are so happy to have Amanda and her daughter home," said Beth Serrano. "At this time our family would request privacy so my sister and niece and I can have time to recover."

But experts say a child as young as 6 has a good chance of overcoming such a traumatic early life, especially with the help of a supportive family and community -- and specific, targeted, intensive therapy.

“These aren’t insurmountable obstacles by any means, but they are things that need to be dealt with and addressed, not in a single point of time, but as the child grows up and kind of encounters the world,” Weaver said.

Emmanuel Dunand / AFP - Getty Images

A daring escape and a dramatic 911 call led to the rescue of three women who allegedly had been held captive for years inside a home in Cleveland, Ohio.

Cases in which children are born to long-term hostages are very rare, of course, Weaver noted. Jaycee Dugard, the California woman who was kidnapped at age 11 in 1991, was held captive for 18 years, during which she gave birth to two daughters. In her book, "A Stolen Life," Dugard recounted that she insisted on educating her children in captivity. Since her rescue in 2009, Dugard, now 33, has shielded her daughters, now 18 and 15, from public view. 

The key to recovery could be the relationship between the little girl and her mom. Even in the worst situations, “there can be a great deal of love and a strong bond,” Weaver said.

The girl likely will have to grapple with conflicting feelings, especially if she regarded the alleged captor, Ariel Castro, 52,  as her father. Castro was charged Wednesday with kidnapping and rape. A DNA test was pending to determine paternity. His two brothers, who also were held, were not charged with crimes in connection with the captives.

Hostages and victims of long-term kidnappings often form bonds with their abusers over time, experts say. A report from the Cleveland Police Department indicates that Castro would sometimes take the child out with him. She was kept from knowing Knight or DeJesus' real names for fear she would say them in public, the report said. 

Such trauma in  early childhood will raise basic questions of identity: What does a "traumatic conception" mean for the child born from that union, Weaver said.

And there also will be the question of interacting with the wider world. Experience with children rescued from polygamist colonies showed that it can be difficult to counter messages ingrained since birth, said Douglas Goldsmith, executive director of the Children’s Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, which specializes in mental health care for families with young children.

“Suddenly a 6-year-old is exploring what is freedom,” said Goldsmith, who is a specialist in attachment theory, which focuses on the bond between children and caregivers. “They’ve been told to never, ever trust people in the outside world. They are absolutely terrified.”

The good news is, once they’ve been rescued, such children can almost certainly be helped, Weaver said. The first step is to make the little girl -- and her mom and the other women -- feel safe and protected. The next step will be to help the child understand what has happened and to answer any questions she may have.

After some time, the child may be treated with a cutting-edge therapy known as trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, or TF-CBT. Developed during the past decade, it is now widely used to help children, families, caretakers and others process emotions and thoughts related to significant trauma, Weaver said.

One component of the therapy is creating a “trauma narrative,” where the child tells the story of the abuse, including all the scary or disturbing things that he or she saw, experienced or felt. That can help desensitize kids to the experience and allow them to work through inaccurate thoughts they may have had about what happened, experts say.

No one’s saying it will be an easy road for any of the women captives -- or for the 6-year-old born into such a world. But Weaver said she wants to offer a message of hope:

“We have effective treatments now for kids,” she said. “There is a great deal of reason to believe they can life happy, productive and successful lives.”

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