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Why kidnap victims and battered women may be to slow to escape.

IN JANUARY, THE SEARCH for a missing 13-year-old boy, Ben Ownby, led police to the home of his suspected kidnapper, Michael Devlin. There they found not one, but two, kidnap victims. Shawn Hornbeck had been abducted while riding his bicycle four years before. The 15-year-old Hornbeck was well-known to neighbors and friends. The story, as flashed out over the TV networks, left Americans stunned. Here was a boy who had surfed the Internet, owned a cell phone, ridden a bike, and even called the police to report that an earlier bicycle had been stolen. Here was a boy who had helped in the capture of a second, younger boy. Here was a kidnap victim who had every opportunity to escape, but failed to do so.

Some people's minds had flashbacks to the 1970s when former kidnap victim Patty Hearst was found by police engaging in robberies with the gang that had abducted her. On his Fox News Channel show, "The O'Reilly Factor," host Bill O'Reilly did not mince his words: "I'm not buying this. If you're 11 years old or 12 years old, 13, and you have a strong bond with your family, Okay, even if the guy threatens you, this and that, you're tiding your bike around, you got friends. The kid didn't go to school. There's all kinds of stuff. If you can get away, you get away. All right?.... This is what I believe happened in the Hearst case and in this case. The situation that Hearst found herself in was exciting. She had a boring life. She was a child of privilege. All of a sudden, she's in with a bunch of charismatic thugs, and she enjoyed it. The situation here for this kid looks to me to be a lot more fun than what he had under his old parents. He didn't have to go to school. He could run around and do whatever he wanted."

There was a reason Devlin afforded his young captive such freedom: his conditioning of the boy had been successful. It was because the youngster he took care of was different from the one whom he had captured and tortured (psychologically and possibly physically) four years earlier. Hornbeck probably had proved his loyalty to Devlin in many ways. Devlin's techniques may not have been aimed deliberately at indoctrination, but they most certainly were designed to break down any resistance. The strategies he used would have been relatively the same as those employed by the government to accomplish the same thing.

The government, as O'Reilly should know, uses advanced techniques to get noncitizen detainees captured in the war on terror to "crack." According to reports on these methods, the most efficient technique is to break down the suspect's defenses through a combination of physical discomfort and psychological deprivation (of light or dark, regular meals, sleep, comfortable sitting positions). The good-cop, bad-cop strategy also is utilized so that the detainee will confide in the supposed ally. Once the person talks a little, he or she is told, "You're mined now with your people, so you might as well tell all and let us help you." Loners usually take longer to break down.

These methods bear some resemblance to those of brainwashing, although brainwashing is not an official psychiatric diagnosis. This term first was coined as a description of political indoctrination of captured American soldiers by the Chinese communists during the Korean War. "Brainwashing" is a translation from Chinese characters meaning "wash heart" or thought reform. Captured soldiers were subjected to prolonged interrogations, removal of group leaders, and a "good-cop, bad-cop" approach. Some Americans became so convinced of the Communist party line that they defected to China. Those who criticize kidnap victims for their seemingly passive behavior should check out psychological research related to victimology. The classic study in this regard is that of Bruno Bettelheim, who described in haunting detail the transition in behavior of concentration camp inmates. Instead of anger, many prisoners came to identify with the SS troops who were torturing them, regressed to a childlike state, and tried to emulate the prison guards. They were extremely grateful for small, often imagined favors. Over time, some rejected their families and friends who seemed to have abandoned them; their only reality was life in the camp.

For kidnap victims such as Hearst and Elizabeth Smart, both of whom were beaten and raped while held captive for months, the process of adaptation to the mistreatment imposed upon them was relatively similar to that of Hornbeck. Both victims ended up conforming to the lifestyle of their captors. Hearst went so far as to take on the identity of Tania and to rob banks with her former captors. Yet, like most of the Communist converts, Hearst and Smart resumed their original identities upon their return to society.

These incidents bring to mind the case of Steven Stayner of California, a youth who was snatched in 1972 at age seven and held by a convicted child molester for eight horrifying years. Although Stayner went to school during this period, he escaped only after his captor told him he was getting too old and kidnapped a five-year-old boy to replace him. Motivated by the boy's distress, Stayner escaped with him and brought him to the police.

Much media coverage in Austria was devoted to the case of Natascha Kampusch, who disappeared at the age of 10. Kept in a basement cell and likely sexually abused for eight years, Natascha managed to escape the man she was forced to call "master" when she was trusted to wash his car. When, in 2006, the police went to arrest her captor, he threw himself in front of a commuter train to his death. Upon hearing of this, Kampusch reportedly wept inconsolably. She had a brief reunion with her family, but has chosen not to see them since. Police psychologists suggested Kampusch may have suffered from so-called "Stockholm Syndrome" a term that refers to a hostage situation in Sweden in which the seized individuals bonded with their captors to such an extent that they even testified on their behalf in later court proceedings. Today, this term often is used as an explanation for why people who are exposed to intermittent kindness by the captor, kindness that is experienced within the context of a life and death situation, become emotionally dependent on the captor.

So, what is the process by which persons in these highly vulnerable situations come to identify so closely with their tormenters and victimizers? Basically, one's identity with powerful individuals who can exact terrible punishments and withhold the necessities of life can be understood as regression to a dependent, childlike state. This response is not gender specific, but human; it derives from a state of powerlessness and regression under situations of extreme stress.

Animal research shows the impact of extreme stress on behavior. Behavioral scientists have found that, in experiments with mice, for example, if the creatures are provided with an escape route, they learn very quickly how to avoid an electrical shock that occurs right after they hear a bell ring. However, if the escape route is blocked, the mice eventually quit trying to run away, even after the escape route is cleared. In humans, this phenomenon is referred to as "learned helplessness."

Traumatic bonding, a term sometimes applied to battered women who seem unduly devoted to their abusive partners, also aptly describes the phenomenon of the loyalty of the child victim in kidnapping cases. The term brainwashing is from the point of view of the captor and less relevant here in that it implies a deliberate attempt at thought control, often of a political nature. The concept of traumatic bonding is a more accurate and less pejorative term that places the focus on the victim of long-term abuse and denotes a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. From this perspective, the seemingly incomprehensible behavior of the victim is viewed as an emotional reaction to a situation of terror and a functional survival skill in adopting the captor's attitudes and belief system. Unlike a single sudden traumatic event, long-term psychological abuse affects a person's well-being by gradually eroding his or her taken-for-granted assumptions. A long-term sexual relationship plays havoc with the emotions as well. Kidnap victims, like battered women, are subject to extensive sexual exploitation and game-playing.

Traumatic bonding is a preferable term to "Stockholm Syndrome," which is more appropriate to a situation of capture in a robbery-type context that is short term and devoid of a sexual relationship. Moreover, as distinct from Stockholm Syndrome, the notion of bonding through trauma goes beyond mere description; it offers an explanation as to why the individual seems more or less frozen in the role of victim.

Children--as young kidnap victims--are much more vulnerable in situations of powerlessness and to strategies of thought control than are adults, and the time period involved, whether it be days, weeks, months, or years, seems much longer to a child.

Sex trafficking is a modern-day form of slavery in which a commercial sex act is induced by coercion. Sex traffickers use a variety of methods to "condition" their victims, including starvation, confinement, beatings, physical abuse, rape, drugging, and threats of violence to the victims and their families. The goal of such forceful violence, which often is used in the early stages of "the seasoning process," is to break down resistance and make the victim easier to control.

According to Project REACH (Rapid Evaluation, Assessment, and Consultation Services), a mobile crisis intervention team that treats traumatized victims of international human trafficking, these abused individuals often are exposed to horrific violence at various points in the trafficking situation. Tom away from family and friends and a familiar culture and language, trafficking victims--many of whom are children--are extremely vulnerable. The impact of violence on youngsters can be very different than on adults, as kids' brains have yet to mature fully. Violence thereafter can cast a long shadow on the way they develop. When children live in fear or chaos, without a safe and reliable adult to structure their environment or to help them calm down, developmental competencies often are compromised.

Sexual slavery

From a mental health perspective, victims of human trafficking, or "sexual slavery," suffer from many of the same symptoms as victims of other forms of kidnapping. The deleterious effects of fraud, force, hunger, and coercion--the favored tools of traffickers who transport girls far away from home to alien territory often under promises of a job or a false marriage proposal--are undeniable. Typically, the girls are passed from brothel to brothel, forced to perform sex or hard labor to repay their "debt" that was incurred for being smuggled into the country. Many feel a sense of guilt and shame and fail to escape or seek help even when given the chance. A steady dose of such mistreatment can hinder the mind and body's ability to respond to stress and danger, leading to troubling symptoms and behaviors.

The challenge to feminist theorists is to explain the often irrational attachment of battered women to their abusers. Many writers of the feminist school focus on rational aspects (such as economic considerations and death threats) in a battered woman's decision to stay with her man. Others look to psychology. The feeling that one has no control is key to behavior that may appear unduly submissive and strangely loyal. The impulse to survive takes precedence, and dependence upon the captor (batterer) is associated with deep emotions. It is worth noting that, in positions of vulnerability (such as old age), men as well as women can, and clearly do, experience battering in relationships. Vulnerability, in short, is the issue here, not gender.

Deeply disturbing and violent events can leave an indelible mark on the human psyche. When the trauma is ongoing and caused by a partner, the likelihood that the victim will cope in maladaptive ways is especially high. Unlike a single, sudden traumatic event, long-term psychological abuse affects a woman's well-being by eroding her taken-for-granted assumptions gradually.

In the U.S., enactment of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 made sex trafficking a serious violation under Federal law. When victims of trafficking are identified, the government can assist them in adjusting their immigration status, as well as help in recovery and building new lives. The intervention team that specializes in aiding victims of trafficking, Project REACH, is composed of trauma specialists who conduct needs assessments of individuals who have been trafficked and provides counseling to assist the survivors in reestablishing physical and psychological safety.

Prevention from the point of view of the victim may begin in democratic child rearing that encourages youngsters to take the initiative in threatening situations--that blind obedience of adults is no virtue--and that they must rely on their own critical thinking abilities. In working with children who have been trafficked or kidnapped, it must be kept in mind that the impact of violence will depend on the developmental stage of the particular youngster and that, after the individual is returned to the community, the development of mast may be a long time coming.

In battering situations, research shows that knowing help is available and there is somewhere to go (for example, a women's shelter) enhance the chance that the victim will seek the aid she (or he) needs. We need to recognize, from an empowerment perspective, that leaving is a process that may require many attempts before being successful. Stages in the process of breaking loose involve changes in one's level of serf-awareness combined with a reevaluation of the relationship as dangerous. Survivors must build up their courage to retreat from the dangers. Research on women who have managed to leave reveals that those with sufficient self-esteem to make the break attribute social support as helping them to start a new life.

Perhaps O'Reilly would retract his flippant and victim-blaming statements if he understood the psychology of living as a captive and considered the facts concerning what Shawn Hornbeck endured: Cut off from his parents, he became completely dependent on a 6-foot-4, 300-pound stranger for food, sleep, warmth, attention, and affection. According to the Associated Press, Hornbeck said that, at times Devlin awakened him every 45 minutes. Yet, all the while, he showered him with gifts.

Katherine van Wormer is professor of social work, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, and author of Human Behavior and the Social Environment, Micro Level: Individuals and Families.
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Title Annotation:Psychology
Author:Van Wormer, Katherine
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2007
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