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Conflict or abduction: Removal from parents traumatizes children

Published on Friday, November 1, 2019

By: Gary Pettus, gpettus@umc.edu

In October, two toddlers in Copiah County were taken from their great-grandmother at gunpoint. That same month, in Jackson, a stranger almost took two boys from a parked SUV.

In 2018, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children assisted with more than 25,000 cases of missing children. Of those cases, about 5 percent involved abductions; less than 1 percent were classified as “nonfamily” abductions, but 4 percent – or about 1,000 cases – were categorized as “family.”

The stories behind real or attempted kidnappings make headlines because they echo one of parents’ greatest fears. The truth is, while a child removed from his or her home or family may suffer emotional wounds, an abduction doesn’t necessarily have to be involved, according to experts at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

Portrait of Ann Skelton
Skelton

Ann Skelton, a UMMC social worker, saw this happen after representatives of a child welfare agency took a child from his school.

“He was being removed for foster care, but he didn’t get to say goodbye to his family,” said Skelton, project coordinator for the children’s mental health services program, Behavioral Health for Infants and Preschoolers, or Be-HIP for short. She said sometime afterward, when a court-appointed advocate came to the same school to check on the boy, “the child hid under a desk.

“When someone he doesn’t know comes to his school now, he thinks he’s going to be taken away again.”

Portrait of Beverly Bryant
Bryant

Being separated from either parent is “incredibly traumatic” for a child, said Dr. Beverly Bryant, UMMC associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior and a child and adolescent psychiatrist. “Children are attached to their parents, even parents who are abusive.

“When the parents are divorced, a child doesn’t know where to turn, doesn’t know how to answer questions like, ‘Do you want to be with your mom or with your dad?’”

Sometimes, it’s a divorced parent with limited visitation rights who spirits away his or her own child.

“It could be for revenge, for resentment,” Bryant said.

Even a divorced parent with primary custody may run away with his or her own child amid fears of abuse in the other parent’s home, Bryant said.

“These are usually motives of desperation,” she said. “Sometimes there is domestic violence or jealousy. If there is a divorce situation, and the custodial parent is getting remarried, the noncustodial parent may say, ‘No way is someone else going to raise my child.’”

When strangers are intent on kidnapping, there are many ways parents can help their children remain safe, said Ryan James, an FBI special agent who supervises the Violent Crime Squad in Jackson, including its Crimes against Children program.

“It’s common sense things,” James said. “Educate them about where they should go and where they shouldn’t go, and that they should travel in groups and beware of surroundings. ‘Don’t go to a car you don’t know.’

“As children are walking home from the bus or to a friend’s house, it’s knowing where there’s a safe house they can go to when they can’t run all the way home. To a neighbor or other familiar face. Warn them about accepting rides, or, with older children, changing plans without the parents’ permission.

“Abductors may use lures with toys, candy or video games. But as social media use has increased, the situation where a stranger is driving through a neighborhood and sees a boy or girl to abduct is very uncommon. The more common type involves a predator going on chat groups and looking for victims that way.”

Still, when the child knows his or her abductor, particularly when it’s a parent or close relative, “that’s a significantly different dynamic,” James said. “There is trust involved.

“Unfortunately, that is more common, and may involve custody issues. It’s up to a parent to alert the child that, for instance, Uncle John isn’t the greatest person. This situation is so confined to the family unit, it’s hard for law enforcement to crack that egg.”

Years ago, Bryant counseled a woman whose ex-husband ran off with their child to a distant foreign country.

“She had to deal with grief, nightmares, flashbacks, regret: ‘What if I had done something differently; would I still have my child?’” Bryant said. “There was no way for her to get in touch with them. So there was also hopelessness, frustration and panic.”

Those are some of the same emotions the traumatized youngster confronts.

“If you’re a child and are separated from your primary caretaker, that is your entire world,” Bryant said. “It is true trauma when your attachment figure is threatened or you are not able to reach him or her.

“It affects your ability to form attachments, depending on your age. This carries over into later life. You can’t really trust other people. So it’s hard for you to form long-term, intimate relationships. And those relationships may be filled with conflict.”

Traumatizing events, including abuse and neglect, are known as Adverse Childhood Experiences, and they pose risks in later life for drug abuse, depression, suicide, diseases such as diabetes and cancer, and more.

“The greater the number of traumatic events children go through, the more their mental and physical health may suffer when they are adults,” Skelton said. She said while they’re still young, they may be unable to express the full extent of their anger or fear; they often act it out instead.

“It’s important to know that angry behavior from children doesn’t mean they are bad. It’s a response to a bad experience, and the reaction is fight-or-flight.

“They will jump at sudden noises. They will run and they will hit you and cuss you out. They may cut themselves or do other acts of self-harm. They may have panic attacks at school. Some turn to drugs, fighting or stealing.”

In therapy sessions, Skelton saw a 12-year-old victim of sexual abuse whose behavior in front of her parent was more suited to a 6-year-old.

“You can stop developing mentally from the time of the trauma,” Skelton said.

In this way, Bryant said abductions can be particularly devastating.

“With an infant, there are issues with eating, breast-feeding,” she said. “With an older child who has been taken, he or she has probably also been removed from school and church as well because the abducting parent is on the run. Everyone’s life is disrupted.

“A boy abducted by his father has been taken by someone he naturally models himself after. His father is part of his identity. And when your parents are divorced and you are a boy and your mother has a bad relationship with your dad, it’s hard for you to find a good identity, an identity that’s acceptable to the mom.”

Skelton, who’s certified in trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, said this evidence-based treatment can help ease post-traumatic symptoms. A relatively short-term measure, it includes the family and encourages children to talk about their thoughts to reveal those that aren’t helpful.

It’s about “making it a safe place where children feel comfortable talking about it,” Skelton said. “Avoidance is huge with trauma. If you don’t talk about it, it can explode.

“It’s about communicating and being honest, validating their feelings. It’s important to tell children you believe them. If you don’t believe them, they may not reach out for help anymore. It may shut them down.

“It’s instilling hope that things will get better. Believe in your child and reach out for professional help.”

Online resources include the National Traumatic Stress Network and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry's Facts for Families Guide. For tips on helping children stay safe, James recommends the website www.kidsmartz.org.


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