Long recovery predicted for Elian

Experts predict trauma to affect Elian for years

By Emilie Astell, Telegram & Gazette Staff

Thursday, April 13, 2000

The thought of returning a child to a communist country is abhorrent to various people interviewed yesterday about the plight of young Elian Gonzalez, but they agreed that he is better off in Cuba with his father.          

Area residents who discussed the case also said that the bizarre circumstances of the boy's rescue at sea, the death of his mother and the prolonged custody battle may cause him years of emotional pain.        

 “He's still dealing with the loss of his mother,” said Glenn R. Kessler, a child psychologist and family therapist in Northboro. “From the amount of loss he's experienced in the last four months, it is almost impossible to estimate the level of emotional pain and damage this is going to do to him. If the transfer to his father is done in a traumatic fashion, that will add to the emotional pain.”           

Because of the losses faced so early in life, including the Miami relatives he would leave behind, Elian is likely to have problems with attachments and trust, and have a general sense of insecurity, Mr. Kessler said.           

Rev. Samuel W. Young, pastor of the First Congregational Church in Oxford, agrees. A family therapist, Rev. Young said the extent of Elian's difficulties depend, in large part, on his relationship with his father and with his late mother.           

Separation from a parent hurts children, he said. Rev. Young counsels families going through divorce. In those situations, children sometimes are put in the position of choosing which parent they will live with -- a decision that adds to their anxiety.           

Elian is too young to make a choice, Rev. Young said, but he probably is wondering who will take care of him.          “When a set of parents announce to a child that they are getting a divorce,” he said, “the child wonders, 'Where am I going to eat and sleep?' Children are very concrete in terms of thinking. No doubt, the same thing is going through Elian's mind.”           

The controversy surrounding Elian's case also points out the problem of gender bias in this country, according to Mark A. Charalambous of Leominster, a co-founder of The Fatherhood Coalition, a nonprofit organization of mostly noncustodial fathers. Members, who include women, advocate for fathers remaining in their children's lives after parents divorce.        

If it were Elian's mother trying to get him back home rather than his father, Mr. Charalambous said, the dispute never would have taken place.           

The premise that mothers are better parents than fathers is at the core of the bias, he said. It also is what drives courts to side with mothers instead of fathers, often alienating children from their fathers in the process, he said.           

“When he is reunited with his father, it won't take that long before father and son are crying in each others' arms,” Mr. Charalambous said. “But it's going to be a rocky road for a while.”          

Steven Basile, co-director of the North Central chapter of the organization, agreed that gender bias is playing a major role in the reunification efforts.           

“It's analogous to what goes on in everyday custody battles,” Mr. Basile said. “Custody is given to the mom and the alienation process starts. For Elian, it's better to get out of the environment in Florida as soon as possible. It is destructive to the relationship with his father.”           

Having gone through divorce himself, Mr. Basile said, he knows that custody battles cause great turmoil in the lives of children. Often, the children withdraw and ultimately reject one of the parents.          

Another member of the coalition, Vicki L. Tyler of Shrewsbury, said Elian's case is extremely sad considering the nature of government in Cuba. She agrees that Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, should take his son home.           “It's extremely bizarre,” she said of Elian's situation. “... He has to go back to such a country, but that doesn't outweigh the balance of being with his biological father.”

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